Monday, 8 May 2017

FILM: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 review

SPIRIT IN THE SKY
The Guardians are back: as bold, as funny and as spectacular as before, with added Kurt Russell.


Everybody wants to be in the last gang in town.
(
Image copyright: Marvel Studios)



















As I said on Facebook, I was a latecomer to the joys of Guardians of the Galaxy. With no knowledge of the Marvel comic series, my first exposure was the sci-fantasy rough and tumble of the 2014 film. I’ve never been a fan of Star Wars, so seeing the rag-tag band of Peter Quill, a.k.a. ‘Star Lord’ (Chris Pratt), the sleekly lethal Gamora (Zoe Saldana), amusingly grumpy strong man Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), bitching, quipping and punching their way across the screen, made a refreshing change from the anodyne George Lucas universe. They were backed up by the wry, Bradley Cooper-voiced raccoon-alike Rocket and the scene-stealing, living twig Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel (the easiest pay day he’s ever had, I imagine: all he had to say were tonal and emotional variations on “I am Groot”.)

Also in the mix were an unrecognisable Karen Gillan as the nearly-all-robot Nebula, gunning for Gamora, and a mechanical-mohicaned Michael Rooker (late of The Walking Dead) as Quill’s nemesis/former comrade Yondu Udonta. Thanks to James Gunn’s frenetic direction, it was all fast and funny, with four of the misfits bonding together to become the Guardians of the Galaxy and – the fairly obvious but heartfelt subtext suggested – a surrogate family.

In fact, Guardians felt like it was being deliberately anti-Star Wars – which, at its worst, can be so straight-faced it must hurt the actors – particularly as it was topped off by kidnapped Earthman Quill’s choice mix tape which he was always playing on his Walkman, and which also soundtracked the action (look it up if you don’t know what a Walkman is). Commendably, a lot of research had gone it the choice of music, ranging from obvious contenders like ‘Moonage Daydream’ by Bowie to The Runaways’ more obscure but equally fine ‘Cherry Bomb’.

I thought that Guardians had the feel of one of those 1980s fantasy action films you’d see Kurt Russell in, so roll round to 2017 and it was pleasing to see the real thing in the early scenes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This was after a belter of a sequence that nails the appeal of the films: where three superheroes fighting a giant squid-like monster would normally be to the forefront of the screen action, here it’s backgrounded as the newly-growing, midget Groot throws shapes to the Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, narrowly missing flailing tentacles and tumbling bodies. The scene is funny, intelligent and inventive, the perfect set up for the film that follows.

There are plenty of set-pieces to enjoy, equally as good as anything in the first film: Quill and crew outwitting a pursuing space fleet, Rocket single-handedly and amusingly taking out Yondo Udonta’s crew, a homicidal Nebula crashing a spaceship into a cave in pursuit of Gamora…

Where this film scores over the first, though, is in the role the aforementioned Kurt Russell plays. He’s been searching the universe for Quill, as it turns out he’s his father; with a name like Ego, though, the Guardians should have been hip to something not being quite right. For all the characters, this more developed theme of what constitutes family spins out into their relationships with each other. Without in any way compromising the film’s anarchic style, this approach adds depth to the movie and is, in a number of scenes, very moving.

Russell is as good as ever, as are the regulars, with Karen Gillan allowed to give some background to Nebula’s motivation. Of the new recruits, the unlikely named Pom Klementieff shines as a na├»ve empath and there’s a surprisingly welcome cameo from Russell’s old ‘80s mucker Sylvester Stallone.

If anything, the film is slightly too long; the Quill/Ego storyline just keeps on going, but I guess with any sequel, the temptation is always to go bigger and better. That said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as refreshing, witty and entertaining as its predecessor, with the addition of some heart-warming sentiments and sensitive character moments.

How long ‘til Vol.3?

Sunday, 30 April 2017

TELEVISION: LEGION review (2017)

WHERE IS MY MIND?
If pop psychology, safari-suited hipsters and mind-swapping is your thing, Marvel's Legion is the show for you.


We've all felt like this from time to time.
(Image copyright: 26 Keys Productions).


















It’s not that often a TV series comes along that you feel compelled to praise very loudly from the rooftops, grab people by the lapels and enthuse wildly to, or go online and clog up social media with superlatives. Legion, the latest offering from the Marvel TV stable, is one such glittering example.

The thing is, you wouldn’t know it was a Marvel series. It’s one of the most stylised, surreal, psychologically playful and insightful, not to mention just plain stylish, series ever to have graced the small screen. That’s because Legion’s visuals are filtered through the unreliable worldview of David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, playing very convincingly with an American accent and attitude), a schizophrenic we first meet in a mental hospital. He’s been struggling with mental illness all his life, so by the time he reaches his thirties and has been sectioned, he’s not sure if anything that happens to him is, in fact, real. (This uncertainty in his perceptions leads to a corker of a cliffhanger at the end of episode four).

You’d never know Legion is a spin-off from the X-Men comics, in much the same way you be hard pressed to say Patrick McGoohan’s personal tour de force The Prisoner (1967-68) was basically a spy series. Legion’s Wikipedia entry describes the series as ‘psychological thriller/psychological horror/drama/superhero fiction’, which is another way of saying that, like The Prisoner, Legion is a gleeful, freewheeling mixture of, and breaking down of, different genres.

It really is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The super hero angle – Haller’s schizophrenia is really a major superpower, incorporating telepathy and telekinesis, that a group led by psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart, oozing authority) wants to develop and a rival, paramilitary group want to destroy – is filtered through David’s attempts to work out who he really is after years of mental illness and drug addiction.

The paranormal talents of Smart’s group complement Haller’s distorted worldview: Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), who has “the ability to take people back into their own memories”; Carey Loudermilk (Bill Irwin), a mutant scientist who shares his body with the martial-arts expert Kerry Loudermilk (the improbably named Amber Midthunder), and Sydney ‘Syd’ Barrett (angelic Rachel Keller, and no, the name of her character isn’t a coincidence), who can swap minds with anyone she touches. As well as all these, Dan is plagued by a questioning part of his psyche that appears in the form of his deceased drug and alcohol-addled friend 
Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), killed in the first episode.

Such an off-kilter array of characters and abilities creates opportunities for fantasy and surrealism such as a kitchen erupting its contents in a slow-motion storm around Dan, a groovy, synchronised dance number performed by assorted mental patients and Oliver Bird, Melanie’s comatose husband (Jemaine Clement, late of Flight of the Conchords) a hipster in a safari suit whose mind now lives inside an ice cube, where he grooves along to avant garde music.

This may all sound like a huge mess, but the narrative through-line is always clear so the series never collapses into self-indulgence. It’s a great achievement, a story told wittily and comprehensibly through dream imagery and multiple versions of reality; apart from that, Legion is just plain cool, the performances are a joy and it makes you laugh out loud more than once.

The series is a testament to how comfortable television networks now are with this kind byzantine storytelling. It’s certainly a long way from the days when, in comparison, a mildly surrealistic experiment like The Prisoner confused everyone.

Recommended.

Friday, 28 April 2017

TELEVISION: 24 - LEGACY (2017)

THE NEXT GENERATION
Can 24 work without Jack Bauer and his crew? Judging by this first spin-off, the answer is a qualified 'yes'.














Something a bit more recent today.

In 2014, the indestructible Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), veteran of nine world-threatening and emotionally battering seasons, was last seen in the custody of the FSB being helicoptered to Russia and a very uncertain – and painful – future. Despite this, apparently there was an attempt to lure Sutherland back for an eleventh run at the role. He declined, so the decision was taken to forge ahead without him.

Looking back over the nine seasons of 24, characters in CTU came and went, often from sudden death – it was one of the series’ hallmarks – and the same was true of the compelling ancillary characters who revolved around the elite unit: presidents, their relations, assorted recurring villains and Jack’s nearest and dearest. Conceptually, then, it was a small step from there to replace Jack himself. Would the audience go for it? The first episode of 24: Legacy, screened directly before Super Bowl LI, drew the largest audience in the history of the series, so the answer would seem to be, at least initially, ‘it does’.

Since 24 started the big sea-change in espionage fiction on TV was Homeland, dealing seriously, cynically and messily with the political situation in the Middle East. The new model inherits some of that political zeitgeist, with most men in the Army Ranger unit of the new man Eric Carter (a slow-burning, effective Corey Hawkins), responsible for executing the terrorist leader Ibrahim bin-Khalid, assassinated despite being in a witness protection programme – clearly, there’s (another) traitor at work in the security services. The head of CTU when Carter did the black op was Rebecca Ingram (none cooler under pressure Miranda Otto), now prospective First Lady, handily drawn back into the espionage fray for dialogue between both the command structure of CTU and the corridors of power in the Whitehouse.

The race is on to prevent the terrorists securing a list of sleeper cells that the terrorists have killed their way through the Army Rangers to get. That’s just one of many plot threads; there’s an attack on a school planned by one of the students and her teacher  which, Breaking Bad style, goes spectacularly wrong   and a terrorist cell planning something in the background. New to the mix, because of Carter’s ethnicity, is his background in a black criminal gang before he became a soldier. It’s not long before he’s in a siege in a police station and the intertwined plotting spins on memorably from there.

So what of the action, one of the things that 24 always managed to do amazingly well, cinematically, on a TV budget? The first episode concludes with an innovative sequence where Carter hides behind a huge steel pipe and rolls it over some bad guys, going on to stab one of them with a steel cable. Not bad, and that was the first of many impressive sequences.

There’s the usual political tension between Capitol Hill and CTU, plus a topical look at how soldiers were abandoned to PTSD and homelessness by the US government; understandably, one veteran is so aggrieved he tries to blackmail them. The shadow of Homeland is again felt in an attempt by a rival party to blacken the reputation of an Islamic presidential aide. She might or might not be radicalised, and of all the running storylines, this is handled sensitively and credibly.

The foreboding, insistent incidental music, split screen visuals and the inevitable interrogation scenes are all present and correct, and while the real-time narrative structure may seem a little old fashioned by now, there’s enough innovation in the formula to suggest that 24: Legacy could be the start of a new lease of life for the franchise. And if you just want the comfort of watching good old 24 as it was, you won’t be disappointed either. The biggest criticism, as in every season before it, is the complete absence of humour. Come on, guys – we know people make jokes under pressure. (See Homeland again).

As for the new man: Carter might not yet have the grizzled ennui of The Bauer, but the new recruit’s girlfriend thinks he enjoys the adrenalized rush of battle far too much, so it could be the beginning of a thread that memorably unravels in his personal life. We shall see.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

TELEVISION: PENNY DREADFUL Series 3, 2016

SOMETHING TO GET YOUR TEETH INTO
Gothic melodrama Penny Dreadful mastered its grisly stride in its third 
and final series.


Image copyright Showtime/Sky 2016.












“Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives.”

Apologies for being a bit behind on this one, but there’s just so much to watch now you’re almost inevitably going to be a few  or several  months behind with some things.

To business: one of the appealing things about John Logan’s horror melodrama Penny Dreadful – that’s gothic horror in the traditions of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose characters the series has cheerfully plundered – is that as well as confronting vampires, witches and other spectral creatures, all the main players – as star Timothy Dalton pointed out at the first series' press conference – battle internal monsters of their own.

Vaness Ives (Eva Green) fights a demon for possession of her body, Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) grapples with his rampant carnal and violent desires, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is a besotted, hopeless drug addict and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) conceals a werewolf beneath his gun-slinging American exterior. Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear, fantastically nuanced and moving) fights his loathing for himself and humankind in equal measure. At the other end of the moral scale, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Frankenstein’s creation Lily (Billie Piper) wallow luxuriously in their own depravity. Such a heady brew places Penny Dreadful firmly in the traditions of Stoker, Shelley et. al, while its painterly, heightened gothic hues – a newly industrialised London is coloured drab, industrial grey, while a disreputable Zanzibar is by turns opulent and murky – elevates the series’ visually melodramatic aesthetic.

Adding to the cinematic palette in this final series, there’s some inspired, panoramic filming on a train and (apparently) the plains of New Mexico. The scenes would have made classic Western director John Ford proud, as Scotland Yard’s finest, the wonderfully named, cool as a cucumber Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge, immaculate in just about anything), pursues the escaped Chandler, who looked like he’d been rescued by the Wild Bunch.

Adding an interesting twist to the third series is Eva attending treatment sessions by an Alienist, the earliest form of address for a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is developing “a new branch of science.” Intriguingly and with some insight, the Alienist Mrs Clayton tells Eva that her affliction “is a dark root with no name from which grows illness.” That may be true in the majority of cases, but Mrs Clayton is shocked to find out that Vanessa’s demons are in fact real. It’s a clever touch, playing the new rationality of the scientific age off against old superstitions. The writer M.R. James pursued similar themes in his ghost stories, written a few years after the events of Penny Dreadful.
Arguably the stand-out in the ensemble this year is Samuel Barnett’s take on Dracula’s slave Renfield which is every bit as twitchy, obsessive and repressed as you’d expect from the man who nailed a public school take on Dirk Gently. Shazad Latif’s dignified, Anglo-Indian Dr Jekyll runs a close second, with Christian Carmazzo’s two-faced, charismatic Dracula close behind (and I’ll wager it’s the first time the King Vamp has been a fan of Captain Nemo).

There is some truly gruesome stuff this time around that would have scandalised the editors of the original penny dreadfuls. The instance of grand guignol that sticks most in the mind is a very young, very naked woman about to be murdered in front of a circle of paying English gentleman voyeurs.

I’m not a huge fan of horror, but it’s hard to resist this line-up of the gothic greats: Dracula, the werewolf, Frankenstein’s Creature, Dorian Gray and Jekyll, especially when they’re reimagined this well. Penny Dreadful is as far from those cheesy Universal Pictures team-ups House of Frankenstein (1944) House of Dracula (1945) as it’s possible to get (fun though they were). And with quality, predominantly British thesping this good, it’s easy to get lured into a binge watch.

Go for the jugular if you haven't already.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

TELEVISION: INSIDE NO. 9

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's anthology series hit a peak with its fourth series.

Keeley Hawes and Reece Shearsmith strike a sombre pose
in 'Diddle Diddle Dumpling'. (Image copyright: BBC)
















Programmes of the quality of Inside No. 9 don’t come along very often, particularly as part of that increasingly rare breed on TV now, the anthology series. It’s written by two alumni of The League of Gentlemen – Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton – who, in a self-contained story behind the door/inside the train car/restaurant of the title, can flip effortlessly between the genres of comedy, horror, suspense and thriller, often all at the same time. 

A modern-day Tales of the Unexpected but with much more of the unexpected than the 1970s/80s series, it’s not surprising that Inside No. 9’s three series have attracted quality casts that have included such polished acting calibre as Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Helen McCrory, Alison Steadman, Paul Kaye and Jane Horrocks, to name a few, complementing Pemberton and Shearsmith in a variety of guises.

It goes with the nature of beast that some stories work better than others, but, with half an hour rather than an hour (usually) to play with, Inside No. 9 attempts twice the amount of stories as Channel 4/Netflix’s Black Mirror so wins out on ambition and originality (after a while the same kind of story ideas did start cropping up in Black Mirror). Cases in point are Inside No. 9’s first episode ‘Sardines’, which takes place almost entirely inside a wardrobe, and the spectacularly funny and inventive second story ‘A Quiet Night In’, in which two burglars attempt to thieve from a flat while it’s occupied – not a word of dialogue is spoken until the last scene. After these heights, and as well-crafted as they were, the remaining stories in the first series didn’t impress as so original.

In Series 2 the quality was more evenly distributed. Among the consistent delights on offer was the hilarious suburban black farce of ‘Nana’s Party’ and the ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, in which Sheridan Smith’s title character, never more deserving of a decent, happy life, relives significant points in her existence in the same flat. You might guess the ending, but it’s still heart-breaking when the reality of what’s happened to her crashes in.   

The stand outs for me in Series 3 have been and ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ and ‘Empty Orchestra’. In the latter, office politics are played out through the songs chosen in a karaoke bar, with Tamzin Outhwaite is on particularly brilliant and bitchy form as the office vamp Connie, belting out the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby’, revelling in the knowledge that Fran (Sarah Hadland), the sweet girlfriend of Greg (a weasly Shearsmith), doesn’t know they’ve having an affair. If there’s a theme here it’s seeing through the pretence of people pretending they’re having a good time to get to the truth, a point shown up in some astute lip reading by the deaf Janet (Emily Howlett: the actress herself is profoundly deaf.) The whole thing is awash with backstabbing and false smiles, so it’s nice to see Janet reap a genuine reward.

‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ is Inside No.9’s most affecting story, although that doesn’t become apparent until the closing minutes. For most of the running time, it looks like Reece Shearsmith’s David’s obsession with finding the missing counterpart to a man’s leather shoe he discovers in the street – via neighbourhood posters, website, twitter and a bumptious DJ on local radio – is the result of a breakdown. His wife Louise (Keeley Hawes) humours him as much as she can, and much of the story’s impact comes from David’s obsession with something so absurdly trivial. Louise’s increasingly desperate attempts to break David’s fixation nudge the story more and more into black comedy, comedy which becomes darkly tragic when the real reason for David’s obsession with the shoe is revealed. Unlike most of the No.9s, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ has no gimmickry in the set up and it relies entirely on the nuanced performances of Shearsmith and Hawes. It’s a riveting watch.

I haven’t even mentioned ‘The Devil of Christmas’. For archive TV enthusiasts, it’s screamingly funny because it shows just how well Shearsmith and Pemberton know their TV production history. It’s an additional pleasure on offer from this talented pair of fantasy craftsmen.

Unlock the door and enjoy.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

TELEVISION: BrainDead

YOU COULDN'T MAKE IT UP
Mini ETs eating the brains of politicians in Washington? That would 
explain everything.


On a Capitol Hill bug hunt... Mary Elizabeth Wanstead as
Laurel Healey. (Image copyright: CBS)
















Last year, before Donald Trump was making the jaws of politicians and political commentators across the world hit the floor in astonishment/disbelief/disgust/terror, a rather enjoyable political satire called BrainDead debuted on the CBS network in America. 

At the time, some people thought the premise was a bit far-fetched: Surreptitiously, alien insects devour the grey matter of Democrats and Republicans, taking them over in the process and making them more extreme. To start with, people around them either don’t notice the change or try to laugh it off.

In the light of recent events, that seems more like reportage than science fiction.

BrainDead was a sweet little thing, created by Robert and Michelle King. The good-in-everything-she’s-been-in Mary Elizabeth Winstead played Laurel Healey, a documentary maker hard up for cash who agrees to work for her Senator brother, the randy Luke (suave Danny Pino – someone always has to play a randy Senator.) So far so West Wing, but the arrival of a meteorite infested by a minuscule extra-terrestrial life form pushes things in an enjoyably offbeat direction.

Notorious drunk and womanising Republican Senator “Red” Wheatus (the always watchable Tony Shalhoub, probably best known for Monk) is suddenly downing health drinks and becomes a Machiavellian political operator, engineering a Republican majority in Congress. He’s more than matched by the brittle, brilliant Democratic Senator Ella Martindale (stage veteran Jan Maxwell), who once she’s bug-ified refuses to compromise on anything the Republicans are involved in. 

From there, there’s lots of political send-up and comment to be enjoyed, such as Wheatus encouraging the alarmingly right-wing ‘One Way’ pressure group – who want to include information about bomb making on their website – the Senate Intelligence Committee approving the use of torture on ‘suspected’ terrorists and the reliably screwy Wheatus trying to engineer a war with Syria through dubious witnesses in Senate hearings… Hmm. See what I mean about the reportage?

There’s a parallel The X Files-style plot driven by the memorably batty conspiracy theorist Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill, underplaying wonderfully), a scientific maverick who discovers the bugs are intelligent, lethal and organised. Lots of heads explode – strong, resistant personalities, emotion or alcohol can cause the combustion – and this part of the story serves up some of the broadest comedy in the show. In one sequence Laurel, already on the cusp of a charming Romeo and Juliet-style romance with Republican Chief of Staff Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit, again underplaying wonderfully), is saved from infection when Gustav actively engineers drunken sex between the pair in Laurel’s flat. Confused but open-minded, Gareth eventually joins the bug resistance.

The nimble mix of US political machinations and Invasion of the Body Snatchers conspiracy thriller was very engaging, but had probably run its course by the end of thirteen episodes: the invasion-by-possession idea (which, to be fair, was a familiar one anyway) would only really work once before it became repetitive, no matter what the setting (and there were plans for three more seasons where the bugs variously took on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood). CBS did the decent, respectful creative thing and didn’t renew.

Having said that, I really admire what the Kings did with BrainDead (impressively, they were also responsible for the award-winning The American Wife). Alongside the serious political intent bound up with light repartee and gross-out humour, there’s their anarchic approach to the ‘Previously on…’ recap at the start of each episode. Over a montage of clips, the story exposition is sung by Jonathan Coulton, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. As the series progresses, his vocalising of events and strumming becomes noticeably more frantic (and funnier).

Perhaps the sharpest political point in the whole series is that when the bugs desert their Capitol Hill hosts leaving them with half-a-brain, the politicians continue their Washington careers as though nothing’s happened (covering the gaps in their skulls with an orange toupee, perhaps?)

Maybe seven months on is a bit late for me to flag BrainDead up as one to watch, but judging by what’s been going on in Washington since the Trump administration took over, you might be laughing even louder if you’re new to it.

Then again, it might make you even more terrified of where America’s heading.