Monday, 28 February 2011

TV Ratings: 'Friday Night Dinner', Channel 4


Great news for Channel 4, who scored a weekend hit with their new sitcom Friday Night Dinner. The comedy, about two twentysomething brothers who have a meal with their parents every Friday, attracted 2.2 million viewers on Friday night at 10pm. That's the best debut for a new comedy since Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere in 2004. Let's see how many tune in for episode 2 this week...

'OUTCASTS' 1.6


It's tough reviewing Outcasts. It has such a dreadful reputation (now dumped to Sunday nights in the wake of dismal Monday/Tuesday ratings), but I do see positive flashes. The problem is that everything good about Outcasts is undone by the indolent pacing and wishy-washy characters, that suck the life out of everything. I'm interested in a fair few story elements (particularly the presence of an alien intelligence on Carpathia), but the means to explore that is the characters I feel no affinity for. It's a TV show where reading a recap may be equally as entertaining, or perhaps preferable because it wouldn't take a solid hour.

Episode 6 was actually pretty good, by and large. It began with the two-day disappearance of three XP's (Hunter, Johnson and Docherty), whom we later learn were sent on a black ops mission to assassinate the AC's leader Rudi by Jack (Ashley Walters) and Berger (Eric Mabius), who's evidently intolerant of the threat posed by those genetically-engineered pariahs. The mystery thickened with the surprise return of Josie Hunter (Juliet Aubrey, reprising her role as Helen Cutter on Primeval) to Forthaven, claiming to have survived an AC attack. Josie was swiftly reunited with her three children, who quickly began to sense that their mother has "changed". Indeed, the audience were several steps ahead of writer David Farr in forming the hypothesis that Josie isn't the real Josie, but another example of the corporeal "hallucinations" Tate (Liam Cunningham) has been seeing of his dead children.

There was undoubted fun and anxiety whenever fake-Josie was on-screen, with Aubrey doing a great job as the off-kilter version of the mother her kids know and love. A moment when Tate spied on Josie, seeing her make random expressions and arm gestures, as if practicing human interaction, was genuinely unsettling. However, everyone's reaction to the fact an alien changeling has sneaked into Forthaven was disappointingly flat: Tate barely reacted, Stella (Hermione Norris) feels more detached than Josie at times, and Cass (Daniel Mays) just went with the flow. Part of the fun when you include aliens is seeing how people react to their presence, as the audience at home want to vicariously experience the thrill and fear, but Outcasts did a poor job in that respect.

The simultaneous drama with the pregnant wife of a missing XP, having to give birth without her husband, was of mixed success. It was another example of the show asking us to care about a character we haven't met previously (or if we have, I've forgotten), and the dilemma at the heart of the situation was a very old one (the baby survives and the mother dies, or vice versa). You'd be inhuman if you didn't care to some extent, but I wish this character had been someone we had a connection with.

One thing I want to praise is the marvelous direction by Andy Goddard, who gave this episode a notable boost visually. The scenery has always been beautiful, but it was particularly awesome here (a vista shot with a distress flare arching into the sky was gorgeous), there were some fantastic scene transitions (my favourite being one where Tate seemed to melt into the shadow of the next scene's corridor), and the tilting action shot of Stella running down a corridor was movie-quality stuff. The AC's were also far more threatening as a silent stealth force, burrowing into Forthaven to cause a blackout.

There's not much more to say about Episode 6, which was pretty basic in term of storytelling. I'm glad an alien presence on Carpathia is now confirmed, but slightly worried it's wandering into clichéd territory of the aliens being fascinated by the human concept of love. I'm also unconvinced by Tate's speculation that these aliens caused the genocide of the hominids that used to live on Carpathia, and have similar plans for them. I'm sticking to my theory the hominids WERE the aliens, in a less-evolved form.

Overall, we only have two episodes left of Outcasts, with little possibility of a second series. It seems to be building towards Berger and Jack mounting a coup d'état, with Stella forced to choose between the two ideologies they represent, the arrival of a CT10 transport full of people who appear to be on Berger's side, not to mention the wider issue of the vengeful AC's and the ambiguous nature of the aliens. That sounds like it might be a heady concoction, so fingers crossed Outcasts at least ends on a high note. It's a shame the first three episodes were so tedious and the characters just haven't been very strong, as the core ideas behind this show are decent -- if derivative of other TV shows, films, and novels that tackled the same broad subject-matter with greater skill.

Asides

  • I see from this episode that Forthaven has a prayer room. I was under the impression religion was frowned upon in this show's future, hence the friction between secular Tate and spiritual Berger, but clearly I was wrong.
  • Not that I want to see more of them, but the lack of Stella's daughter Lily and genius/DJ Tipper in recent weeks hasn't gone unnoticed. Hopefully, if they're still of relevance, they'll figure into the remaining two episodes more.
  • Why did the AC's have to burrow into Forthaven? As last week proved with Pak, you can simply walk through the gates and grab yourself a drink at the local bar.
  • Juliet Aubrey didn't bring her impressive cleavage over from Primeval, more's the pity, but her character really could have just wandered over from that show.
written by David Farr / directed by Andy Goddard / 27 February 2011 / BBC One/HD

Oscars 2011: The Results


The 83rd annual Academy Awards were held last night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California. Did you watch? I'll try and catch the highlights, mainly to see the various sketches that hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway did. As for the winners: The King's Speech was the big hit with four awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay), and I was pleased to see Natalie Portman win Best Actress for Black Swan. It boggles my mind that Tom Hooper can win Best Director over David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky for The King's Speech, though. And Christian Bale got Best Supporting Actor, proving Tropic Thunder wrong. You really can go "full retard" and be a success.

The full results are below. What did you make of the evening?

BEST PICTURE

  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King's Speech WINNER
  • The Social Network
  • True Grit
  • Winter's Bone

BEST ACTOR

  • Javier Bardem - Biutiful
  • Jeff Bridges - True Grit
  • Colin Firth - The King's Speech WINNER
  • Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
  • James Franco - 127 Hours

BEST ACTRESS

  • Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine
  • Natalie Portman - Black Swan WINNER
  • Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
  • Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
  • Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Christian Bale - The Fighter WINNER
  • John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
  • Jeremy Renner - The Town
  • Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
  • Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Melissa Leo - The Fighter WINNER
  • Amy Adams - The Fighter
  • Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
  • Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
  • Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
  • Joel &Ethan Coen - True Grit
  • David O Russell - The Fighter
  • David Fincher - The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper - The King's Speech WINNER

BEST ANIMATED FILM

  • Toy Story 3 WINNER
  • How To Train Your Dragon
  • The Illusionist

BEST SCREENPLAY WRITTEN DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN

  • Another Year
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The Fighter
  • The King's Speech WINNER

BEST SCREENPLAY BASED ON MATERIAL PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED

  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network WINNER
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter's Bone

BEST FOREIGN FILM

  • Biutiful (Mexico)
  • In A Better World (Denmark) WINNER
  • Outside The Law (Algeria)
  • Incendies (Canada)
  • Dogtooth (Greece)

BEST ART DIRECTION

  • Alice In Wonderland WINNER
  • Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1
  • Inception
  • The King's Speech
  • True Grit

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Black Swan
  • Inception WINNER
  • The King's Speech
  • The Social Network
  • True Grit

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • Alice In Wonderland WINNER
  • I Am Love
  • The King's Speech
  • The Tempest
  • True Grit

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Exit Through The Gift Shop
  • Gasland
  • Inside Job WINNER
  • Restrepo
  • Wasteland

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

  • Killing In The Name
  • Poster Girl
  • Strangers No More WINNER
  • Sun Come Up
  • The Warriors Of Qiugang

BEST EDITING

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • The King's Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network WINNER

BEST MAKEUP

  • Barney's Version
  • The Way Back
  • The Wolfman WINNER

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • How To Train Your Dragon
  • Inception
  • The King's Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network WINNER

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • 'Coming Home' (Country Strong)
  • 'I See The Light' (Tangled)
  • 'If I Rise' (127 Hours)
  • 'We Belong Together' (Toy Story 3) WINNER

BEST SOUND EDITING

  • Inception WINNER
  • Toy Story 3
  • Tron: Legacy
  • True Grit
  • Unstoppable

BEST SOUND MIXING

  • Inception WINNER
  • Salt
  • The King's Speech
  • The Social Network
  • True Grit

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Alice In Wonderland
  • Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1
  • Hereafter
  • Inception WINNER
  • Iron Man 2

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

  • Day & Night
  • The Gruffalo
  • Let's Pollute
  • The Lost Thing WINNER
  • Madagascar, A Journey Diary

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

  • The Confession
  • The Crush
  • God Of Love WINNER
  • Na Wewe
  • Wish 143

'BEING HUMAN' 3.6 - "Daddy Ghoul"


A mixed bag this week, with another guest-star focused storyline, this time balanced with pertinent events back at the B&B. The latter was definitely the most engaging aspect of "Daddy Ghoul", although the former was decent filler because George's father was a more relevant character than vampire Adam and zombie Sasha from earlier this series.

After the cataclysmic events of "The Longest Day" there was a feeling of deflation with this episode, as the atmosphere returned to relative normality. Nina (Sinead Keenan) was still wary of Mitchell (Aidan Turner) now she thinks he's a sicko who keeps a scrapbook of death under the attic floorboards, but primarily she looked to be regretting ever having called the police with an anonymous tipoff about the Box Tunnel 20 massacre. The long arm of the law arrives in the form of DC Nancy Reid (Erin Richards), a beautiful blonde who attracted the furtive attention of Herrick (Jason Watkins) with her cut knee, as the amnesiac vampire is starting to suffer withdrawals. I guess I can accept that Nina has started to have second thoughts about bringing the police into the situation (if only because it may expose vampires to the world if they arrest Mitchell and interrogate him), but it still felt strange that headstrong Nina's shock and revulsion was diluted so quickly.

Elsewhere, it was frankly bizarre to see Annie (Lenora Crichlow) and Mitchell back on good terms, after their horrendous bust-up. You would hardly know a bad word was said between them from how they interacted here, which is perhaps a problem stemming from how UK dramas aren't written in teams. Did writer Lisa McGee get to read last week's script, or was she just briefed about the current state of things and someone forgot to mention Mitchell and Annie's explosive argument? Either way, creator Toby Whithouse could have smoothed the transition by rewriting dialogue to better reflect the repercussions of episode 5.

There was also some confusing series continuity, as a cold open flashback to Paris 1933 gave us a True Blood-esque scene between Herrick and Mitchell in an ornate hotel room containing a dead body and glasses full of siphoned blood. It was here that the debonair Herrick revealed to Mitchell that a vampire inherits the memories of their maker. An interesting piece of vampire lore, but we've seen Mitchell create progenies before now and I never got the impression they had inherited all his memories. To me, this felt like a retroactive way of explaining how Cara knew how to resurrect her maker Herrick. But did you ever get the impression dimwitted Cara had all of Herrick's memories and knowledge? Also, Mitchell himself was turned by Herrick during WWI, so if he was given all of Herrick's memories after becoming a vampire, why did he need to be told any of this? I'll leave that to the super-fans to debate or explain.

The situation at the B&B was suitably tense once Reid started sniffing around, especially when Annie turned Hopkirk to Reid's Randall and helped solve the mystery after realizing Lia (the girl she saw in purgatory) was one of the Box Tunnel 20. There was also some fantastically creepy sequences with Herrick throughout this hour, which are giving Watkins the best material he's had to work with that plays to his strengths. Here, he cut a peephole in the attic floor so he could salivate over Reid's fresh knee wound, before retrieving her bloodied bandages from a bin and sucking on them. But the pinnacle of the episode, for me, was the moment when "Uncle Billy" made himself known to Reid in the bathroom, and Herrick fought against his instinct to tighten his jaws around the policewoman's neck. Having him manage to pull himself back from the brink was unexpected, as was having him give Reid the incriminating scrapbook as evidence. Mitchell may have saved his skin by ensuring Reid didn't leave manage to steal his property without a warrant, later burning it in the garden, but there's no way Reid's going to let this matter lie. As a relative underling at CID, she knows solving this case will make her career.

The majority of the episode was spent elsewhere, after George discovered that his father, George Sands Snr (James Fleet), had died, and decided to attend his funeral. This was the first time we've seen anything of George's family, whom he ran away from after being turned into a werewolf (a decision that's never felt plausible to me), and the storyline here was engaging in the moment. I really liked how George caught his nervous dad's ghost watching how own funeral, and the two decided to reconnect in a nearby caravan, while trying to determine what George Snr needs to do in order to "crossover" to the other side. A kind of posthumous Bucket List that involved them watching Titanic.

I've always found James Fleet irritating, mainly because he plays the same fidgety, upper-middle class milquetoast role in everything he does, but that shtick was used well here. You could buy into George Snr as a spineless tool who let his marriage collapse when his wife Ruth (Marion Bailey) had an affair with bullying former PE teacher Marcus (Danny Webb) during salsa classes, and in death had to man up to win her back. Only, he wasn't really dead. In a beautiful subversion of the spectral cliché popularized by The Sixth Sense, George discovered that his dad unwittingly faked his own death when his shed burned down, toasting an unfortunate vagrant, and just decided to go with the flow when everyone assumed he'd died.

A marvelous idea, although the actual epiphany (with George catching his dad eating) was oddly flat - maybe because the rules about ghosts aren't so fixed in your head. George may have mentioned that ghosts can't eat, to help us out when the reveal came, but it still didn’t quite connect. It would have been better if George Snr was caught catching something thrown at him -- as new ghosts don't have that ability, right?

There was also a great moment when George summoned the courage to tell his parents he's a werewolf, which they didn't believe, but unburdening himself was enough. The moment was played like a "coming out" scene for a gay man (is that the core werewolf analogy in Being Human) which worked very well, and I had to wonder if George Snr spent this whole episode thinking George and Nina's "condition" is that they're both HIV positive.

Overall, I definitely rate this episode as an entertaining hour that ultimately served a purpose, even if the entire storyline with George's parents was just something to pass the time. I hope we'll see more of the Sands, despite the fact George now has less reason to be so tormented about his past. "Daddy Ghoul" was one of those episodes where the A-story was less compelling than the subplots, as everything going on at the B&B was effortlessly more exciting because it has more back-story and relevance to series 3's ongoing narrative. There were some frustrating slips and, for me, moments that didn’t quite make sense, but the situation with Mitchell and Herrick appears to be reaching a crescendo I'm keen to see.

Asides

  • I didn't find Annie quoting Cheryl Cole lyrics to George in the kitchen very funny, mainly because the words to "Fight For This Love" have nothing to do with grieving a loved-one.
  • There was a clear reference to The Shawshank Redemption with George and Nina's alibi about escaping from a cult by digging a tunnel hidden by a Raquel Welch poster, but was Herrick's attic peephole a nod to Shallow Grave?
  • "I'm not very good with death", says Annie the ghost.
  • "Daddy Ghoul" didn't really broach how death should mean something very different to Being Human's characters. They have empirical proof that there is an afterlife, so I thought the episode could have mentioned this when George read his dad's obituary. It would definitely change the way in which you mourn someone's passing, wouldn't it?
  • So, uh, you don't want to tell your parents you're going to be a father yet, George? Again, did writer Lisa McGee know this was a storyline in-play?
written by Lisa McGee / directed by Philip John / 27 February 2011 / BBC Three/HD

TV Picks: 28 February – 6 March 2011 ('A League Of Their Own', 'Glory Daze', 'Jamie's Dream School', 'Love Thy Neighbour', 'Wonders Of The Universe', etc.)

'Wonders Of The Universe' - BBC2/HD, Sunday, 9PM

Every Monday I browse the UK television schedules for the coming week, selecting each day's best new TV shows. Below you'll find the result of that work...

MONDAY 28th
How To Live With Women (BBC3, 9pm) A group of lazy boyfriends are educated in basic domesticity, to please their girlfriends. (1/4)
The Story Of Variety with Michael Grade (BBC4, 9pm) Michael Grade presents a guide to variety performances, featuring interviews with Bruce Forsyth, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, Barry Cryer, and many more. (1/2)
Great British Hairdresser (E4, 10pm) Reality series where celebrity hairdresser James Brown, model Abbey Clancy and Glamour magazine editor Jo Elvin search for the UK's top stylist. (1/10)

TUESDAY 1st
Horizon: Are We Still Evolving? (BBC2, 9pm) Alice Roberts investigates the theory that mankind's advances in technology mean we've broken free of natural evolution.
The Listener (FX, 9pm) Season 2 of the US crime drama.
Neighbourhood Watched (BBC1, 10.35pm) Series 2 of the show that follows a group of housing officers and their dealings with various tenants. (1/4)

WEDNESDAY 2nd
Jamie's Dream School (Channel 4, 9pm) Jamie Oliver recruits celebrity experts to become teachers of a school and convince 20 slacker students to give education a chance. Featuring Robert Winston, David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Alastair Campbell, Dominic West, Simon Callow, Jazzie B & Daley Thompson. (1/7)
OMG! With Peaches Geldof (ITV2, 9pm) Peaches Geldof is joined by Radio 1's Aled Haydn Jones and therapist Emma Kenny for a lighthearted mix of chat and advice. (1/6)

THURSDAY 3rd
Hardliners (Dave, 8pm) Series following the adventures of Australian anglers.
Comic Relief: Famous, Rich & In The Slums (BBC1, 9pm) A group of celebrities spend a week in a Kenyan slum. Stars Lenny Henry, Samantha Womack, Reggie Yates & Angela Rippon. (1/2)
Love Thy Neighbour (Channel 4, 9pm) 12 families compete to win a dream life in the countryside, with the villagers of their potential new residence having the final say. (1/8)
Working Girls (BBC3, 9pm) Lazy women are partnered with businesswomen for 8 days, in an effort to inspire them to greater things. (1/4)
Glory Daze (E4, 9pm) Drama about four university freshman in the '80s. Stars Joel Harrington, Eli Feldman, Brian Sommers & Jason Wilson. (1/10)

FRIDAY 4th
A League Of Their Own (Sky1, 9.30pm) Series 3 of the sports comedy panel show. Hosted by James Corden, with team captains Freddie Flintoff & Jamie Redknapp, regulars John Bishop & Georgie Thompson, and guests Jimmy Carr & Phil Taylor. (1/9)

SATURDAY 5th
Nothing.

SUNDAY 6th
Civilization: Is The West History? (Channel 4, 8pm) Historian Niall Ferguson ponders the idea that the West's global dominance is reaching an end, by first charting its rise. (1/6)
Wonders Of The Universe (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary series where Professor Brian Cox guides us through some of the most spectacular sights of the universe. (1/4)
Country House Rescue (Channel 4, 9pm) Series about the renovation of various buildings. (1/13)

Sunday, 27 February 2011

'SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA' – "The Bitter End"


The finale of Gods Of The Arena was as gruesome, gripping and violent as we've come to expect, although perhaps not quite as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as hoped. I blame the fact there wasn't enough in "The Bitter End" that could compete with the previous shock deaths of Gaia and Titus, as it was practically a foregone conclusion that characters like Tullius (Stephen Lovatt) would be eliminated. Still, the fact so much of the story appeared to have been wrapped up halfway through gave the second half a more unpredictable feel, and I was delighted so much of this prequel's events dovetail into Blood & Sand in ways I didn't expect.

The funeral of Titus brought a somber air to the ludus, with black attire and the gladiators wearing full regalia, although it didn't last long before Batiatus (John Hannah) was plotting to avenge his father's murder by killing Tullius, unaware it was his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) who was behind the poisoning. The plan itself was a beauty: Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) pretending to have turned traitor from his best-friend, alerting Tullius to Batiatus's plan to have Gannicus (Dustin Clare) conveniently "escape" so he can't honour his father's debt. Poor Tullius and his lapdog Vettius (Gareth Williams) fell for the story, walking straight into an ambush by Batiatus's men. The ultimate fate of Tullius, knifed multiple times and bricked up in the foundations of his beloved new arena, was particularly grim and darkly poetic. He's such a detestable character you couldn't totally sympathize (certainly not after his unwarranted murder of Gaia), although knowing he didn't actually kill Titus and the ghastliness of his death elicited some degree of compassion.

Once Tullius was removed from the picture, the finale arguably lost some of its tension, as there were no big villains left to defeat. But I really enjoyed the surprising way Solonius and Batiatus's friendship dissolved, with the former being handed young Vettius' ludus in exchange for keeping him alive to provide an alibi about Tullius's absence from the games. It was an underhanded maneoever on par with Batiatus's best efforts, and instantly transformed Solonius from background player to a prominent lanista with the most gladiators in all of Capua. Out of all this nastiness, it was rather fitting that Solonius would be the one who benefitted the most (now privileged enough to sit a row ahead of Batiatus in the VIP box), but it was also a slight distress to realize many of Batiatus's cutthroat traits has rubbed off on the levelheaded Solonius, who had proven himself a great friend. It was a strong and unexpected way to setup their rivalry, and probably the most successful part of the prequel in terms of making you watch Blood & Sand with fresher eyes now we know their history together.

A large portion of the finale was given over to the inaugural games themselves, in Capua's impressive new arena, and they were as bloodthirsty and brutal as usual. But a more significant moment arrived with the pre-games execution of petty criminals, which included the fugitive slave girl Diona (Jessica Grace Smith) that Naevia had helped escape (Lesley-Ann Brandt). Adding to the torment was the presence of the perverted Roman nobleman who took her virginity and set her down this path, who took great delight in seeing her current circumstance, and the fact Batiatus relented to having her slaughtered in public simply because he didn't recognize the girl and was in a foul mood. That's the horror of this ancient era, encapsulated right there: life is cheap, death is but an entertainment, and your end may come simply because someone's having a bad day.

What impressed me about "The Bitter End" was how it reached its conclusion in ways I didn't expect, while also laying groundwork for season 2 of Blood & Sand. The climactic fight between the outnumbered gladiators of Batiatus and the inherited might of Solonius's fighters was a thrilling spectacle (not least because it took place in a literal ring of fire), but it shook off predictability in some key ways. I'm sure most people were expecting the last man standing to be Crixus (Manu Bennett), given we know he becomes the Champion of Capua and Gannicus isn't in Blood & Sand, but the fight took an interesting turn; with Gannicus knocking Crixus out of the fiery circle, then winning the championship and his freedom. The latter was an especially clever move, seeing as Solonius suggested this show of mercy as a means to remove Gannicus from future competition, making the whole event something of a hollow victory for Batiatus. He may have won the primus, but he's lost his most trusted friend, turned him into a great rival, and his God Of The Arena has become a free man. On a lesser note, Ashur (Nick Tarabay) received the fateful leg wound that ended his days as a competitive gladiators, but it was a nice surprise to realize the deed was done by Crixus. Their frosty relationship in Blood & Sand is thus more understandable.

And as I said, quite a few things feel like they'll be returned to when Blood & Sand resumes its story next year: given his parting words to Solonius, Vettius is likely to return and reclaim his ludus; I get the feeling there's unfinished business between Naevia and the smug Roman who crushed her friend's spirit; Gannicus will undoubtedly return to help Crixus and Spartacus in their quest, as the history books show he was a general in their army; and the denouement confirmed that pregnant Lucretia wasn't slain, so she'll be out to avenge her husband's death. It remains to be seen if Gannicus will ever reveal to Oenamaus that his wife was unfaithful before her death, but he wisely kept the matter a secret here.

Overall, "The Bitter End" was a slight muddle at times, but the pure spectacle and inventive ways it concluded its six-part story managed to compensate, while the prequel succeeded in the tricky business of both deepening Blood & Sand season in hindsight and laying groundwork for its continuation. It also marks something of a fond farewell, seeing as the show will never quite be the same again. Obviously John Hannah's role on the show has come to a definitive end (we were lucky to get this encore prequel) and he's become the show's beating heart in many ways, but there's also the fact Spartacus is turning away from the gladiatorial combat that, for some, is the show.

It remains to be seen if Spartacus: Vengeance will soar or flounder without the ludus as a backdrop, but hopefully it will broaden the show's ambition. As much fun as it's been, I'm not convinced the writers could get more mileage from the existing premise, so a change is probably for the best. Just as long as they continue to give us big emotions, treachery, shocking deaths, fizzing melodrama, buckets of blood, vicious violence and plenteous nudity, they should be fine.

Asides

  • Yes, I'm aware now that Gannicus's fate should have come as no surprise if you know your Ancient history. I actually made a point of avoiding too much real-life information on Spartacus's uprising during Blood & Sand, and I'm glad I did. I spent these past six weeks thinking Gannicus could be killed at any moment, which gave the show added life.
  • Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, giving his thoughts on the successes of prequel Gods Of The Arena and the return of Blood & Sand next year. Well worth a read.
  • Spartacus has hardly shied away from graphic violence, but Gannicus's victorious final move (shoving an arrow into his opponent's mouth and snapping the man's jawbone and face in half) was surprisingly graphic even for this series!
  • I'm not sure why, but I only just realized that Lucretia is wearing Gaia's red wig, in honour of her late friend. Isn't that a little ghoulish, though?
  • The fact Solonius fancies Lucretia was hinted at again, with him offering her sanctuary at his home, but nothing really came of this late development. I can't remember his secret love ever being alluded to throughout Blood & Sand, either, so I'm not sure why the writers bothered to include it. Maybe just to confirm to a few people that he isn't homosexual?
written by Steven S. DeKnight / directed by Rick Jacobson / 25 February 2011 / Starz

Movie Bites: 'The Hole', 'The Last Airbender' & 'The Other Guys'

THE HOLE. Joe Dante (Gremlins) makes his overdue return to directing with children's fantasy-thriller The Hole; essentially Goosebumps-meets-The Gate. In a typically Spielbergian suburb of America, teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a new house with their single mother (Teri Polo), later discovering a padlocked trapdoor in the basement that covers a bottomless abyss. They investigate the uncanny hole with the help of cute next-door-neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett), only to later realize that they've awoken malevolent spirits from within.

There's a pleasing sense of '80s nostalgia about The Hole, particularly in its first act, which features the tropes of many kid-friendly horrors of that decade: a family moving into a new neighbourhood, a shy teen ignoring his mom because he's listening to loud music, there's even a sinister jester puppet that recalls both the unnerving clown from Poltergeist and Dante's own Gremlins once it springs to maniacal life. The trouble with The Hole is that the mystery and scares become less potent the longer the movie trundles on, despite a fun detour when the trio find the house's previous occupant "Creepy Carl" (Bruce Dern), perhaps proving The Hole would have made a better Outer Limits episode than a full-blooded movie.

Still, credit Dante for delivering a scary movie for kids with some genuinely creepy moments (the grinning jester's a recurring nightmare-in-waiting), camera tricks that were once avant-garde for adult horrors (reverse-filmed ghosts, to create an unnerving jittery gait), and good use of Friedrich Nietzsche's quote "if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you" to explain the eponymous hole's power.

directed by Joe Dante / written by Mark L. Smith / starring Teri Polo, Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble & Bruce Dern / 98 mins.

* * *

THE LAST AIRBENDER. All hope that M. Night Shyamalan could reverse his filmmaking nosedive by tackling someone else's material are dashed by the dreary non-event of The Last Airbender. Maybe MNS should try directing someone else's script entirely, although there are a worrying number of awkward, stilted scenes that belie Shymalan's usual competence behind the camera. Maybe the guy's starting to lose whatever glimmers of latent talent remained on The Happening? Last Airbender's chilly steampunk production design, nifty special effects, and intelligible fights are the only things worthy of some praise, and thus responsible for my one-star rating.

In a mythical realm there are four kingdoms whose populations can wield, or "bend", the five elements (earth, air, fire, water) to their will. The Air Nation are extinct at the hands of the bellicose Fire Nation, who declared war on all their neighbours, and our story begins with Water Nation friends Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) uncovering an airbender called Aang (Noah Ringer) in a globe of ice -- who's also the long-lost Avatar, capable of controlling all four elements and commune with the ethereal Spirit world. Elsewhere, exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko (Dev Patel) is determined to capture the Avatar to regain the acceptance of his warmongering father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).

There's nothing about Airbender's premise that shouldn't work as a live-action movie. I hear the Nickelodeon cartoon this movie's adapted from is a revered animation with the potential to have spawned a successful franchise in the Harry Potter/Star Wars mould, which makes Shyamalan's limp movie a bitter pill to swallow. The screenplay unwisely tries to compress an entire season's worth of plot into 99-minutes and, frankly, this results in puzzling twists and turns. I'm still not sure if Zuko was a hero or villain, or exactly why the Fire Nation refuse to live in harmony with the other kingdoms. All the actors are vacuous husks, bringing no personality to proceedings, so it's impossible to care about the quest they're on, or invest in their motivations -- if they even have any. While a stupid love-story materializes out of nowhere for gormless Sokka and a beautiful teenage princess, any potential of a romantic undercurrent to Katara and Aang fails to ignite.

The Last Airbender is a movie with a rich universe to explore, but provides no emotional tether for its audience. It's rather like watching a hazy dream unfold, only half as fun in the moment and forgotten twice as fast. But it was a surprise box-office success, despite being savaged by critics, so maybe a lower-budget sequel will happen. If so, let's hope Shyamalan finds his Irvin Kershner and hands over the reigns.

written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan / starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi & Cliff Curtis / 103 mins.

* * *

THE OTHER GUYS. Mismatched "buddy" cop comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman), where pen-pushing detective Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and his dimwitted partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) stumble upon a case where billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan) is trying to cover his business's financial losses to client Lendl Global. Gamble and Hoitz are the eponymous "other guys" of the precinct, dismissed by their colleagues (particularly an egocentric duo played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson), who get a chance to prove everyone wrong by solving the city's biggest ever crime.

My problem with this comedy is, at heart, very simple: it isn't very funny. The case being investigated is a white-collar bore that's impossible to feel any connection with, wasting Coogan in the process (no change there), while the simply humour of partnering nerdy Ferrell with idiot Wahlberg rarely amuses. The only element that works is a running gag that Ferrell's character can't see that his sexy wife Sheila (Eva Mendes) is every man's dreamgirl, instead convinced she's a plane jane, which has very little to do with the actual story being told. There are moments when you get the impression this is intended to be an American answer to Hot Fuzz (a climactic car chase swaps Fuzz's miniature village for a golf club's driving range), with McKay also indulging himself with memorable but pointless sequences (like a one-shot tableaux in a pub, where the camera floats around frozen 3D snapshots of Gamble and Hoitz partying.) Adding to the sense of a movie utterly failing in its intentions, the end credits involve animations that explain various financial concepts (using graphs, pie-charts, and statistics), despite the fact The Other Guys never once felt like a clever treatise on shameful business practices.

directed by Adam McKay / written by Chris Hency & Adam McKay / starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, Steve Coogan & Michael Keaton / 107 mins.

Video: 'Law & Order UK' - Lessons In British Justice


I don't watch Law & Order UK, but that doesn't make this any less amusing. BBC America have created a very funny three-minute video giving American viewers a tongue-in-cheek guide to the cultural differences between the original L&O and this British spin-off. There's a smattering of genuinely helpful information about slang, but it's mostly a funny sequence of observational quirks about the show and British culture. Who knew us Brits love to wear scarves and the police can't resist thwapping files onto desks?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

'FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER' 1.1 - "The Sofabed"


Drive round to Obsessed With Film, where I've reviewed the first episode of Channel 4's new sitcom FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER, starring Tamsin Greig & Simon Bird. New Scientist magazine! Apple crumble! A sofabed!

Robert Popper isn't a name many people will recognize, but he's been involved with some of the better British comedies in recent years; most notably his co-writing of '70s school education film spoof Look Around You with Peter Serafinowicz, which even led to him working on a few episodes of South Park. Popper returns with his first solo project, Friday Night Dinner, which is another example of a recent trend to have sitcoms take place in a restrictive location. It even shares some conceptual DNA with Simon Amstell's Grandma's House, as they both involve young people mixing with their middle-aged Jewish relatives. Continue reading...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Talking Point: will you be watching the Oscars?


This is primarily a TV blog, but I cover movies occasionally, so what are you thoughts on this Sunday's Oscars? Is Natalie Portman a shoo in for Best Actress? Can anyone beat Colin Firth to Best Actor? Is The Social Network going to steal Best Picture from The King's Speech? Or don't you care about any of this pomp and ceremony?

I won't be watching. I don't think I've seen the Oscars more than a handful of times in my entire life, as it's always shown so late in the UK. I think it starts at half-one in the morning this year? That's ridiculous! Why don't they hold the Oscars on a Saturday? It would undoubtedly boost the worldwide ratings, as most people in unfortunate time-zones DO want to watch it, but they have work on Monday morning. By the time I consider watching the next day's highlights, I already know all the results, so can rarely summon the enthusiasm.

And what do you make of James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-hosting? A good, unexpected choice? Are you braced for a disaster, as neither of them are comedians? I hear they're going to be performing a dance number from Grease, which means Hathaway will perhaps give fanboys a taste of her Catwoman by slipping on Olivia Newton-John-style leathers. Worth setting the DVR for, I reckon.

I was delighted to see 40+ comments in my previous Talking Point, so hope you all get stuck into this topic, below. Have at it!

'NO ORDINARY FAMILY' 1.16 - "No Ordinary Proposal"


The writing's on the wall for ABC's underperforming superhero drama, which means it's a struggle to get enthused about it. As the season finale looms, "No Ordinary Proposal" at least spent time pushing the mytharc along, but the show isn't delivering fireworks from moments I thought would be cataclysmic (like Stephanie discovering Joshua erased her daughter's memory.) I'm therefore losing faith that No Ordinary Family is going to capitalize on the storylines it's juggling.

Joshua (Josh Stewart) proposed to Katie (Autumn Reeser), which inspired an engagement party at the Powell residence, where Daphne's (Kay Panabaker) friend Chris (Luke Kleintank) stole super-serum belonging to Stephanie (Julie Benz) to cure his irascible father Roy's (Anthony Michael Hall) paraplegia. The serum worked, but Roy wasn't content with his restored mobility and, realizing he also has super-strength, decided to rob ATM's across the city -- with his crime spree bringing him to the attention of Jim (Michael Chiklis) and George (Romany Malco). Meanwhile, Stephanie tested her anti-serum on Joshua so he can live a normal life with fiancé Katie; Jim accidentally hospitalized an innocent bystander after deflecting a gunman's bullet; and JJ (Jimmy Bennett) was blackmailed by his teacher Mr Litchfield (Jason Antoon) into joining the school's decathlon team.

I liked the idea of inadvertently creating a supervillain, particularly as Jim had to use his intellect to defeat someone with superior strength to his own. There was also a fun antithetical angle to the warring father's, with Roy being something of an ungrateful bully. The guy threw his own son through a window and didn't even stop to check he was okay, so he can't be expecting Father's Day cards. And having Jim learn boxing moves from George, to avoid Roy's attacks and gradually tire him out to gain the upper-hand, worked really well. It's always appreciated when a superhero has to use special tactics to defeat the week's villain.

Dr King (Stephen Collins) is also becoming good fun as the big bad, now he's forced to take matters into his own hands as there are no henchmen left to do his dirty work, and there was promise in the final scene when it was revealed he paid Mr Litchfield to have JJ solve a special equation. I predict the equation is something that will enable the permanency of Dr King's super-serum, as the show is hopefully edging towards Super-King vs the Powell clan.

Overall, "No Ordinary Proposal" had many flaws but it wasn't too bad. The breakup of Katie and Joshua (after she discovered he erased her memory) was rather muted given how long they've spent setting up this relationship, but that's partly because Stewart's hardly the most emotive of actors. When he smiles you wish he hadn't bothered trying. Still, seeing Joshua leave town on a coach, now without his super-powers because of the anti-serum's delayed reaction, makes me think he'll be back to help his ex-girlfriend when Dr King becomes a real threat.

A briefer review this week, which in itself summarized my feelings. What did you think?

Asides

  • I barely recognized Anthony Michael Hall as Roy. When Hall was appearing in TV's The Dead Zone he looked considerably different to his teenage '80s heyday in movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, but it looks like he changes his appearance every five years!
written by Andrew Major & Emily Silver / directed by Stephen Surjik / 22 February 2011 / ABC

'MAD DOGS' - Part Three


If "Part One" was setup and intrigue, and "Part Two" was aftermath and reaction, "Part Three" should have deepened the mystery in preparation for the finale. It didn't quite achieve that, as the story's annoyingly cagey about revealing much about the circumstances behind Alvo's murder, which is beginning to make me suspect the answers will be a disappointment. "Part Three" leaned on the show's farcical side (a corpse was accidentally dropped overboard as a party-boat playing Aqua's "Barbie Girl" sailed past with women flashing their breasts; a short, angry gangster was lowered into a well for safe-keeping), although sometimes the comedy felt forced and witless (like pondering the PC term for a midget), and I was annoyed by the stupidity of detective Maria (Maria Botto) this week, who could have solved the case by staking out the villa and following her four suspect's movements.

The disposal of Alvo's putrefying body was again the driving force of the plot, with the boys convinced that chopping off their dead mate's hands and dumping him on Jesus' stolen yacht will make the cops think he was killed by the Serbian Mafia in "a drug deal gone bad", as Maria believes the Mafia were behind Jesus' own murder. I'm disappointed Mad Dogs didn't widen its scope here, or put the gang on the offensive, as they're still floundering around with no idea what they're caught up in. Why was Alvo shot dead? Are the Serbian Mafia involved? Did the Mafia kill Jesus? If so, why? And why are the four people who witnessed Alvo's hit being kept alive?

It was also a real shame that Maria's role was reduced to a few brief scenes here, as she was a wonderfully peculiar screen presence in "Part Two". The fact it was revealed she has the gang's video of their trip on Jesus yacht made for a good cliffhanger last week, but that didn't impact this episode's events in the slightest. Why doesn't she arrest them? And, as I said, she'd have cracked the case by simply following them around, as they rarely leave the villa without carrying a dead body or drug money.

Tiny Blair (sans mask) also returned to antagonize the gang and demand they tell him where Jesus' yacht is, in broken English, but why didn't he interrogate them after shooting Alvo? And as this week's cliffhanger involved Tiny Blair being found dead in the villa's deep freezer, with a note saying "we told you not to go to the police", the whole thing is a real puzzle.

Overall, "Part Three" was the weakest installment of Mad Dogs yet, which I wouldn't have expected from a penultimate episode. Still, there was a stronger emphasis on the characters than "Part Two", with nerves beginning to shred. In particular, Rick (Marc Warren) started to annoy everyone by openly discussed Quinn's (Philip Glenister) failures and the £5,000 he's still owed by Baxter (John Simm). Quinn was also in a reflective mood, admitting he wishes he never had children because of what it did to his marriage ("... as soon as you have that kid, the love that you had for each other is consigned to history") and pontificating about how people don't control their destinies these days. Some great moments from a great cast, and I'm eager to see how writer Cris Cole draws everything together for next week's finale. I just hope the mystery isn't revealed to be something rather basic, hence why there's been so much weirdness to throw us off the scent.

written by Cris Cole / directed by Adrian Shergold / 24 February 2011 / Sky1/HD

Thursday, 24 February 2011

'GLEE' 2.14 - "Blame It On The Alcohol"


I brace myself for sanctimonious schmaltz whenever Glee tackles "the issues" effecting today's youth, and there were indeed moments when "Blame It On The Alcohol" started preaching. It doesn't help that half the cast look like they're in their mid-20s, so their concerns about alcoholism looked distractingly naïve. Fortunately, Ian Brennan's script managed to balance the pro's and con's of drinking culture, and this was the first episode in a long time that told a fun story with a decent moral.

Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) was concerned about the levels of underage drinking at the school recently, so tasked Mr Schue (Matthew Morrison) with getting the glee club to perform an anti-drinking song at an upcoming assembly. Rachel's (Lea Michele) attempt to write an original song for Regionals flopped because her life experience is so limited (she sang about her hair band), so she threw a party at her house; an event that began with a lifeless atmosphere and suffocating prudence, before spiraling into a raucous riot once Puck (Mark Salling) got the alcohol flowing. During the party, Rachel also snogged Blaine (Darren Criss) in a game of "spin the bottle", which caused Blaine to rethink his sexuality, to the disquiet of Kurt (Chris Colfer). Meanwhile, Mr Schue accompanied Coach Beiste (Dot Marie Jones) to a honky-tonk bar, to sing a duet of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" and, after returning home, drunk dialed Emma (Jayma Mays) to reveal his abiding feelings for her.

"Blame It On The Alcohol" walked a fine line, but I ultimately enjoyed it because the theme wasn't as trivial as usual and the script didn't take the easy option of condemning drink. "Drink responsibly" was the message, delivered clearly, while giving us some examples of the positives and negatives of boozing. I guess it's easy to sneer at the simplicity of the argument (drink greases the wheels of social occasions, but it gives you a hangover and can lead to embarrassment?!) but it's easy to forget that a sizeable proportion of Glee's audience are pre-teens who could do with their TV role models giving them some pointers.

Rachel's house party was also a very funny scene (of course she has a stage in her basement to perform for neighbours), and it was both amusing and embarrassing to see the cast acting drunk: from Michele pulling faces and looking a mess, to Morrison slurring his words and giving his Spanish class A+ scores on their homework.

I'm finding it a struggle to care about Kurt and Blaine now, though. It was a fun idea to send Kurt away to a different school and fall in love with a boy, away from any social judgement, but the way the story has progressed leaves me cold. The writer don't seem to like the fact it removes Kurt from the Gleesters, so he's always mixing with his old friends, and Blaine's always tagging along. The fact Blaine doesn't seem to notice, or care, that he's leading Kurt on also makes him look stupid or insensitive. This episode had Blaine considering he's bisexual after he enjoyed his drunken smooch with Rachel, before a sober encore convinced him otherwise, which coincidentally gave Rachel a heartbreak she can channel into her songwriting. I hope this means the Kurt/Blaine situation can move forward properly now his sexuality's confirmed, without constantly making Kurt look like an infatuated puppy.

The performances were better this week, although it's becoming a joke how many times they give Artie (Kevin McHale) lead vocals on any track involving a black rapper. I had an odd fondness for the karaoke-style duet of "Don't You Want Me" between Rachel and Blaine at the party, but it was undoubtedly the climactic rendition o Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" that lingers in the memory. Heather Morris took the lead and attacked the choreography with gusto. She's a remarkably good dancer and has a natural flair for movement; it's just a shame her vocals aren't anything more than competent. And while I love her character's deadpan one-liners, I wonder if the writers regret making Brittany two-dimensional comic relief. Or if they'll gradually evolve Brittany into something resembling a person, because I'm beginning to think Morris is wasted as the cutaway for a pokerfaced quip.

Overall, "I Blame The Alcohol" was surprisingly good fun and didn't collapse under the weight of having to make a serious point about the dangers of binge-drinking. Most the of performances were good, the gags were funny, the moral was balanced, and I thought the resolution worked well -- with the hung-over Gleesters vomiting over each other mid-performance, instantly turning their schoolmates off drink.

Asides

  • Grey vomit? What were they drinking? Or was the bizarre colour chosen because of some ridiculous rule about taste and decency on US network TV? Similar to how you can get away with bloodletting if the blood's green and belongs to an alien.
  • I really wish this show could afford more teachers. It's getting very boring seeing Schue interact with Beiste, Sue, Emma and Figgins. The show came alive when Gwyneth Paltrow's substitute guest-starred, so I'd love to see a few more semi-regulars.
  • Stupid but amusing running joke: Figgins constantly mispronouncing Ke$ha's name as "ke-dollar-sign-ha"
  • The Schue/Emma relationship was returned to here, with Sue (Jane Lynch) playing Schue's drunken call to Emma over the school public address system, but it's so hard to care about that match-up. It was sweet in season 1, but when they got together it was horribly yucky, so why are we supposed to want them to get back together?
  • Becky has a xylophone! Is Ian Brennan a secret fan of UK holiday camp comedy Hi-De-Hi! from the '80s?
  • Will we ever see Rachel's two gay dads on the show?
written by Ian Brennan / directed by Eric Stoltz / 22 February 2011 / Fox

'V' 2.7 - "Birth Pangs"


After last week's unmistakable move to invigorate V, "Birth Pangs" continued on a similarly propulsive note. The show is delivering a surprising amount of information and clarity about the Visitors and their masterplan this season, which is great to see, even if it sometimes feel like an hour of information dumps in-between action sequences. The character problems and grossly expositional dialogue persist, but it's countered by the handful of actors who elevate the material, while the focus on action and answers at least staves off boredom.

This week, Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell) had to persuade the Fifth Column to accept her as Eli Cohn's chosen successor, travelling to Hong Kong to meet with her predecessors lieutenants, before investigating the mysterious Dr Rai who was involved with her pregnancy; Anna (Morena Baccarin) was aggravated that Tyler's (Logan Huffman) phosphorous levels are too low for the next stage of her interbreeding plot, so put a contingency plan into motion by ordering Lisa (Laura Vandervoort) to start a relationship with one of the 28 alternative males; captive Diana (Jane Badler) tightened her bond with granddaughter Lisa, insisting she refuse to trust anyone in the mothership; traitor Ryan (Morris Chestnut) resurfaced, having survived Eli's bomb, and discovered that Anna has accelerated the age of his hybrid daughter, as part of a plan to ensure the hatchling of her last surviving egg matures quickly if Lisa needs to be replaced; and Chad (Scott Wolf) revealed his Fifth Column allegiance to Lisa, asking her for medical information on the live-aboard humans to determine why they're being experimented on.

"Birth Pangs" also debuted the new uncompromising and aggressive attitude of Erica, which seemed to go down well with Hobbes (Charles Mesure), although Mitchell still doesn't look comfortable. It was discussed in the comments of my review last week, but I'm not sure if the actress is simply weak, or just uncomfortable with this character. There was a moment hinting a romance with Hobbes could be on the cards (as TV characters of opposite gender can't lie next to each other without giving off signals), so maybe that will stir some life into Mitchell. I still have good memories of her performance in Lost, so it's very confusing that she looks so awkward in this show.

The dehumanizing of Tyler (symbolically having his hair shaved off), worked well. The character's such a bore that turning him into a jarhead, brainwashed V devotee is a wise move, and I like the suggestion he's becoming more like a Visitor with every passing day. Tyler's even opted not to grieve for his dead father, but instead throw himself into flight training, which spares Huffman some acting. There are only two big issues with his character now: (a) it's impossible to see why Lisa cares for Tyler so much, as there's zero chemistry between them, and (b) the show still hasn't explained why Erica doesn't just tell Tyler the truth about the Visitors. If Erica revealed what she knows and her son went into hiding, Anna would simply turn her attention to one of the "alternatives" for her daughter to sleep with, so surely that's an option now.

I also liked how both Tyler and Lisa were revealed to be expendable in Anna's eyes, which puts them both on very shaky ground. Seeing Lisa standup to her mother (refusing to cheat on Tyler and slapping Anna across the face) was also a great scene that gave Lisa more a backbone. She also proved to be rather smart by avoiding Joshua's (Mark Hildreth) trap, when he pretended to have regained his memory of being a Fifth Columnist in an effort to obtain an incriminating reaction from her. Some of this is down to the guidance she's receiving from granny Diana in her dungeon, who aroused my suspicions in this episode. We're being led to believe Diana's a benevolent queen who was ousted by her ambitious daughter, but I'm not so sure. There are too many scenes where Diana gives the camera a devious, villainous stare. I have a feeling that if Diana is released, she'll be an equal threat to humanity, but would just approach the problem from a different angle. The only difference between Diana and Anna might be that the former is pro-emotion, so wouldn't be wasting her time trying to eradicate the human soul. If so, Lisa may regret helping her grandmother escape to regain her throne, which must surely happen before the season's over.

Overall, "Birth Pangs" managed to push the mytharc along very well, and it really helps having a good idea what the Visitors are up to now. Anna's masterplan, with the 29 motherships hovering over cities that each contain a genetically-modified human mate for Lisa to breed with, doesn't make total sense, but it's the kind of pulp sci-fi you can accept. The original '80s series was all about eating humans and stealing Earth's water, so this remake's genetic manipulation and interbreeding is far more interesting and intelligent scheme. It's just a shame V's ratings remain so low, putting the likelihood of a third season in serious doubt, because this year's been a definite improvement and I'd like to see how things develop.

Asides

  • What was up with the heavy use of sunglasses in Hong Kong? Was it really that sunny? Wouldn't it have been a good idea for Erica and Hobbes to show the Fifth Column their eyes, if you're trying to gain their trust?
  • The special effects for the suicide of Dr Rai was really good, as she jumped off that skyscraper and disintegrated in freefall. A genuine stunt, mixed with CGI. Impressive.
  • Tyler's suddenly unsuitable for interbreeding because of an immunity to phosphorous? Ryan's daughter can no longer be affected by the pain Anna inflicted on her, which could only be soothed with her bliss? Both are changes that happened because otherwise the writers will encounter dead-ends, but it still caused some eye-rolling from me.
written by Cathryn Humphris / directed by David Barrett / 22 February 2011 / ABC

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Video: 'Boardwalk Empire' VFX Breakdowns


My recent greenscreen post went down well, so here's another incredible special-effects showreel, brought to my attention by @TVSatelliteWeek. This four-minute video shows you how the 1920's world of Boardwalk Empire was created, using greenscreen to extend the sets they built. A word of warning: about halfway through there's footage of a significant character who joins the show mid-season, whose CGI-assisted facial disfigurement is a key part of his character's unnerving presence. You may consider those shots a spoiler if you haven't seen all of Boardwalk Empire's first season yet. It's unfortunately the preview frame Vimeo has grabbed (see above), but there's nothing I can do about that.

Talking Point: what are YOU watching that I'm not?


I think you all know what I'm watching on TV every week. If you don't, you're just not paying attention! But what are YOU watching that I'm NOT? And is there anything currently airing on TV it's a shame I've missed out on? Do you have any general recommendations to share? And what are you most looking forward to in the next few months? Game Of Thrones? Doctor Who?

Incidentally, I'm baffled by the lack of comments for Sky1's Mad Dogs. It's only running for a month, has a great cast, and is very entertaining, but my review of Part Two received zero comment. Is nobody else watching it? Am I alone in liking it? Is there nothing to add?

'CHUCK' 4.16 - "Chuck Versus The Masquerade"


Regarding the primary storyline, "Chuck Versus The Masquerade" felt rather insubstantial, but this allowed for valuable character-based subplots for Morgan (Joshua Gomez) and, to a lesser extent, Casey (Adam Baldwin), who both came to realize they're becoming gooseberries in the lives of their friends. It was a curious episode, because I was more engaged with the subplots, which rarely happens on this show, although the last 10-minutes brought everything together nicely.

This week, Volkoff agent Boris Kaminsky (David S. Lee) began a one-man search for a mysterious "Key", which he can apparently use to gain control of his jailed boss' dormant organization, by interrogating and killing Volkoff's higher-ups about its whereabouts. The last person on his hit-list is affluent Englishwoman Vivian McArthur (Lauren Cohan), who General Beckman (Bonita Fiedericy) believes is Volkoff's chosen successor, so dispatched Chuck (Zachary Levi), Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), Casey and Morgan to arrest her for questioning before Boris eliminates her. In three interwoven subplots, a stressed Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and exhausted Devon (Ryan McPartlin) struggled to get baby Clara to sleep; Morgan decided to move out of Chuck and Sarah's apartment, as he feels like a third wheel; and Casey was approached by Jane Bentley (Robin Givens), director of the National Clandestine Service (NCS), about furthering his career by joining her secret operation.

I assume from this episode that Vivian's going to become the big bad for the remaining of season, by deciding to follow in her estranged father's footsteps. The "Key" (her V-shaped locket) not only unlocked a secret doorway in her father's office, but likely unlocked a villainous streak in her. I also enjoyed the parallel of Vivian being shown a literal doorway to a new life, at the same time Casey was shown the entrance to "Zone 6" beneath Castle. This episode was all about new beginnings, really. I also enjoyed the storyline with Morgan realizing he should move out of Chuck's apartment before his best-friend marries, and that his prized Star Wars collectibles have become childish anchors in his life. The moment when Morgan convinced Chuck it's time he moved out (with the Han Solo/Chewbacca figures used to represent their domestic separation) was also nicely done, although quite why Morgan believes moving back in with his mother is a step forward is anyone's guess! Can't he move in with girlfriend Alex (Melvin Mekenna) or get his own place? He's on a store manager's salary at the Buy More, after all.

Second of Strahotness: love angel

It was also a joy to see more Morgan/Sarah interaction in this episode, which is just an intrinsically funny pairing. In many ways their interaction reminds me of season 1, when Chuck was more noticeably "a geek" and self-conscious around sizzling Sarah. Morgan and Sarah have nothing in common beyond Chuck, and it was a delight to see Sarah try and make a connection with Morgan through his Star Wars toys, which slipped into babying him. They should get more scenes together, because the awkwardness between them is priceless, and Strahovski is particularly funny in this context.

The teaser set at Valentine's Day was also great fun, with lovebirds Chuck and Sarah accidentally discovering Morgan and Alex blindfolded, cross-legged, and engaged in tantric sex on the floor, moments before Casey burst in to catch his daughter and her boyfriend with chocolate smeared over their faces. It was unconnected to anything else happening in the episode, marking it out as filler, but it was still a great moment that focused on those five characters and their everyday lives together. In fact, it would be interesting to see Chuck do a whole episode without any spy-jinks, with everyone just kicking around at home over a lazy weekend.

Overall, "...Versus The Masquerade" had a smattering of great moments, tangled up in a perfunctory storyline about protecting Vivian from a hitman. Given how Chuck always focuses on families, I like the idea of playing up the father/daughter angle of Volkoff's criminal empire, having just completed a mother/son storyline with Chuck and Mary, and Victoria's turn to the dark side was also nudged along nicely (her privileged life is a repetitive bore so she craves excitement, she exhibited a dark side by killing Boris, and she was encouraged by Chuck that a person can change overnight). Unintentionally, Chuck's created his next nemesis...

Asides

  • Boris assassinating someone in a car (a splat of blood hitting the windscreen), Vivian pumping Boris full of lead with a shotgun. Does anyone else think Chuck was uncharacteristically graphic with the violence this week? Sure, it's no Rambo, but it was noticeably tougher this week.
  • How many times has Casey been undercover as a bartender now? If the spy game ever comes to an end, at least he has a fallback skill serving drinks. Likewise, we got more of Chuck and Sarah undercover at a swanky party -- the show's default situation for every mission.
  • Will we ever see Morgan's mother again, if he's moving in with her? I'd love to see the interaction between Morgan, his mother, and Big Mike at the Grimes residence.
  • Could Vivian actually be Chuck's half-sister? If her father's Volkoff, is her mother Mary?
  • What could Casey's new mission be, working for the NCS in what's essentially the next-door office at Castle? It may be a little weird if Casey's still employed at the Buy More/Castle, but doing his own thing every week. I'm interested to see how the writers handle this, but glad it means Baldwin's finally going to get something to do this season.
  • There was an enjoyable Human Target-esque finale, with Vivian and Chuck fleeing bad guys on a horse. Nice to see the show being a little more imaginative with its action sequences, as I don't remember there ever being a horse chase before
written by Rafe Judkins & Lauren LeFranc / directed by Patrick Norris / 21 February 2011 / NBC

'MRS BROWN'S BOYS' 1.1 - "The Mammy"


Taken as individual elements, this brand new studio-based comedy offers nothing original, but cumulatively it makes for a heady confection of madcap weirdness, a stream of hit-and-miss jokes, and bemusement. Mrs Brown's Boys is a TV adaptation of material that's already formed the basis of four popular stage plays by Irish writer-performer Brendan O'Carroll, playing his alter-ego Agnes Brown; a sharp-tongued, interfering Dublin mother-of-six.

In an echo of It's Garry Shandling's Show, Mrs Brown is fully aware "she" is a drag act on a TV sitcom, and regularly breaks the fourth wall to address the studio audience. In one scene, Mrs Brown even dashes from the "pub" set to the "kitchen" set to grab a forgotten handbag, with the camera breaking the show's reality by filming her studio run. There's something very bracing about Mrs Brown's Boys, as it's been so long since I've seen a comedy quite like it (although it shares DNA with Miranda, which also breaks the fourth wall), but I'm not yet convinced it'll have staying power once the novelty of its format fades.

To be positive, creator/star O'Carroll is a whirlwind of energy and leaves a crater-sized impression as the vociferous matriarch. The fact Mrs Brown has been "rehearsed" hundreds of times on-stage means the pace and jokes flowed like mercury. O'Carroll's script spewed all manner of broad jokes and sight gags at a hectic pace, although quite a few appeared to be appropriations of jokes I've heard elsewhere. The Irish characters couldn't help evoking memories of the dearly missed Father Ted (Irish accents are inherently amusing to me), although the supporting cast felt trapped in the orbit of Brendan O'Carroll, whose eponymous character tended to overshadow everyone and everything. Hopefully some of the supporting characters will come into their own soon, but I get the impression this show exists to have Mrs Brown careening around the set -- cracking jokes, electrocuting herself with a stun-gun she mistakes for a phone, getting stuck in a furry penguin-head, and falling over a great deal.

It was unbridled chaos at times, capturing the feeling of a live show extremely well, while unafraid to drop F(eck)-bombs into the fast-and-furious dialogue. However, the show made me feel dizzy after 10-minutes, and in the cold light of day I can barely remember the plot or half the jokes. Mrs Brown's Boys is the kind of zany comedy you perhaps need a few week's to acclimatize to before delivering a final verdict. I'm exhausted just thinking about coming back for more.

Mondays, BBC1, 10.35PM

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

'EPISODES' 1.7 - "Episode Seven"


After nearly two months, that's the finale? While Episodes showed signs of life in "Episode Four" and "Five", the show completes its run with an entirely predictable and largely unfunny installment. Everything you'd expect to happen following the events of last week, happened. And without the laughs or drama to cloud that disappointment, the show came to a non-resolution that teased a second season I can't imagine many people craving.

We opened on Beverly (Tamsin Greig) and Matt LeBlanc sharing the horribly clichéd post-coital cigarette, before being told husband Sean (Stephen Mangan) never slept with Morning (Mircea Monroe) so she can't even blame this indiscretion on petty revenge. Filming on the Pucks pilot wrapped with false delight ("what a wonderful couple of weeks it's been"); the studio suits squirmed as unreasonable Merc (John Pankow) ranted about the poor quality of pilots this year; and Sean deduced that LeBlanc slept with his wife thanks to a cinnamon cologne called "Joey", leading to a very unfunny and protracted fight at LeBlanc's beach house.

A great deal of this finale just didn't work for me. The underlying problem was how unsurprising everything was, and how a resolution didn't materialize because it chose to end on a cliffhanger -- with the Lincoln's told Pucks is a surprise hit with test audiences and being taken to series. Season 2 would assumedly involve the Lincoln's facing the daily pressures of having to run a sitcom expected to churn out 20-odd episodes every year, leading a writers' room of unavoidably quirky characters, with the simmering resentment between them and their show's lead actor. While there's a small part of me that would like to see Episodes sink its teeth into some of that stuff, if that's the direction they decide to take, I'm not particularly interested in seeing where the main characters go from here.

Episodes felt like it should have been a one-off miniseries, and given the weak ratings for Showtime I'm not expecting it to be renewed. Its quality doesn't really justify a revisit; the comedy wasn't very funny, the drama wasn't very dramatic. The actors gave it their best shot, but the writing squandered the potential of having LeBlanc subvert his "public persona", probably because he doesn't actually have one to subvert. It was also very choppy in how it chose to flesh out LeBlanc's character. What happened to his ex-wife and kids, introduced in "Episode Four" and swiftly forgotten about?

Overall, Episodes is a show that picked fairly lazy targets, ridiculed them without ever going for the jugular, and proceeded to stir the pot in the same way every week. Merc's a hypocritical schmoozer, we get it! It always presented the Lincoln's as being in the right over how best to remake Lyman's Boys, failing to show enough of a flipside (beyond that scene where LeBlanc made Sean realize writing a straight man's unrequited love for a lesbian is a limiting creative choice.) The only time the show came to life, for me, was when it focused less on the showbiz trappings and more on personal stuff like Beverly's jealously of Sean's interest in a sexy work colleague and friendship with a celebrity she's grown to despise.

Episodes was an interesting Anglo-American experiment that's divided critical opinion (I've read reviews that claim it's the funniest and sharpest thing on TV in years, which boggles my mind), but for me it was mostly a failure. If a comedy-drama doesn't make you care for the characters or laugh very often, what more really needs to be said?

Asides

  • I found Daisy Haggard's Head of Comedy very funny in "Episode One", but her return here made me realize how Episodes has evolved in my estimation. Initially, laughs were so lacking that I latched onto Haggard as someone delivering the goods (a comedy boss with the fixed expression of someone permanently smelling farts), but the show became more grounded after "Episode Two", so her shtick looked very misplaced here.
  • Was "Joey" a real cologne released when Friends was at its '90s peak?
written by David Krane & Jeffrey Klarik / directed by James Griffith / 21 February 2011 / BBC2/HD

'OUTCASTS' 1.5


It's the snail's pace that keeps killing my enthusiasm. I liked the idea behind this lyrical fifth episode, but because it boiled down to a long trek through an empty wilderness with three characters (two of whom you don't really care about) you felt every second of the hour passing. It doesn't help that the alien world of Carpathia is, for reasons of premise and budget, a beautiful but unexciting place of unending vistas, with the occasional binary moon. This journey at the heart of this episode needed bigger incidents to keep things fresh and tighten the trio's dynamic as they struggled through obstacles, but not enough really happened in that respect.

This week, a bearded Scottish stranger calling himself Pak (Gary Lewis) arrived at Forthaven with a pouch full of glistening diamonds, getting himself into a bar brawl with Jack (Ashley Waters) and some locals before disappearing, chased by PAS officers Fleur (Amy Mason) and Cass (Daniel Mays). It soon became clear that the unkempt outsider is one Patrick Baxter, the first person to step foot on Carpathia; an expeditionary man presumed dead but who's actually been living for 11 years at the coast, which Forthavenites avoid because they've been told the ocean is dangerously radioactive. After hearing about their community's visitor, Stella (Hermione Norris) decided to track Fleur and Cass across the wilderness with the help of Jack, believing the ocean holds the key to explaining the discovery of hominid skeletal remains on Carpathia.

At one point Jack suggests to Stella "you need to think less; that'll make life easier", and that's good advice for the viewers at home. There are just so many questions Outcasts throws up every week. Individually they're minor quibbles, but collectively they punch holes through the show's reality. How did Pak just wander into Forthaven's open gate? Aren't they protecting their perimeter from possible AC attacks these days? Why does anyone care about diamonds, if they can't be used or exchanged as currency on Carpathia? Why does nobody recognize Patrick Baxter, who's obviously a very famous figure in human history? Why were Stella and Jack so unimpressed when they found the beach that turned Cass and Fleur into excited kids? Are Cass and Fleur the only PAS officers in Forthaven? Why did Pak opt to stay away from Forthaven for 11 years after he landed? Why would people believe the oceans are radioactive? As it's not true, who told them they were? Was Stella expecting to find unearthed skeletons at the beach? Admittedly, there may be answers to some of these questions, and a few may even be intentional clues towards something Outcasts has up its sleeve for the finale, but in the moment some of these head-scratchers can be very irritating.

To be positive, the focus on two connected storylines avoided the rambling that seeped into earlier episodes, and Gary Lewis was excellent as the archetypal wise old man trying to broaden two people's horizons -- literally and figuratively. He brought a great deal of interest to a fairly sketchy character. The fact Pak was dying and on something of a reverse pilgrimage also gave the episode some heft and, later, some emotional spark. The fact Pak has been "hallucinating" his dead golden retriever also subtly developed the storyline with Tate (Liam Cunningham) seeing visions of his dead children. It seems likely the planet is somehow capable of generating these illusions, giving it a similarly mystical vibe to the Island on Lost. Or is it more Solaris? I'm not sure if Outcasts was created with an eye on Lost and Battlestar Galactica, but it certainly resembles a loose fusion of those two shows in some areas. If Pak's dog had been called Vincent, it would be case closed.

Still, Outcasts has delivered decent cliffhangers that keep me coming back, and this episode's felt particularly game-changing, as we saw Julius Berger (Erica Mabius) open a communication device in his quarters and make contact with transport ship CT10, with a warning that Tate's losing control of the mission. I guess it's not totally shocking to realize there's another batch of emigrants on the way to Carpathia (these transport ships probably leave Earth at a regular evacuation pace), but Berger's words could be construed as meaning he knows Tate has a specific "mission" beyond leading these people. Or is he just trying to subvert people's faith in Tate so he can assume control? Why is his codename "Alchemist"?

Overall, episode 5 was pretty good, although it's beginning to feel that Outcasts is skilled at making you ask questions, and not much else. And are we asking questions out of desperation to find form and reason to the show? How many of these questions did the writers intend us to be asking every week, and how many are just shrewd viewers noticing gaping plot-holes? I just hope Outcasts has a satisfying answer for the core mysteries in play (the skeletons, the fossils, Tate's hallucinations, Berger's plan), and the majority is answered by episode 8. I think it's safe to assume Outcasts won't be renewed for a second series by the BBC, so will it leave us with a maddening cliffhanger? That does seem likely, to me, as there's a lot to cover in three episodes if they intended a largely self-contained miniseries.

Asides

  • In case you didn't hear, in the face of bad ratings the BBC are pulling Outcasts from its 9pm Monday night timeslot. It will now air on Sundays at 10.25pm for the remaining three weeks.
  • Pak told a story of an AC called "Tigger99" who was actually the first person sent down to Carpathia, back when they weren't sure if the environment could sustain life. Tigger was a character in the Winnie The Pooh books by A.A Milne. He was also a tiger, which is the animal Mitchell's son was obsessed with in episode 1. Coincidence? Or is this a clue to something..?
  • Does anyone else think Outcasts would work a lot better if Forthaven had been around for 30-50 years instead of a mere 10? It would have been much better if Baxter had landed on Carpathia as a young man, and was now aged. The decadal gap appears to have been decided on because they want to show the growing pains of a community, but I still think it would be better if Forthaven had been around a great deal longer. I think the planet needs some human history behind it, beyond the AC situation: like other aborted communities, splinter groups, nomads, mineral mines, a prison, stuff like that.
  • What was on the stone Stella found on the beach, that she described as "a time machine"? An etched drawing of something? A fossil?
written by Ben Richards & Jimmy Gardner / directed by Andy Goddard / 21 February 2011 / BBC1/HD