15 Under-Appreciated TV Shows You Need To Watch: Part Two

January 26, 2012

All the way back on November 3, I wrote the first of what was supposed to be three quick-fire articles about TV shows. For whatever reason, I just didn’t get round to doing it and I’m sure someone somewhere has been clicking refresh on the homepage now for more than two months.

Well wait no more, because Part Two is here.

This article will focus on American comedy shows. Now, none of these shows are considered poor, but the sense of Under-appreciation comes the way they are either not on TV in the UK on any major TV station or have fallen foul of the dreaded ratings system in the USA.

As anyone who follows American TV knows, quality comes in at a distant second to ratings and even if it’s one of the best shows on TV and has a strong ‘cult’ following, if it has been put in the wrong timeslot or just doesn’t have the backing of its network, then it just won’t succeed. And the first entry of this article may be one of the most famous examples of that there is.

Arrested Development (US TV, 2003-2006)

Some of you will be reading this and thinking ‘Arrested Development shouldn’t be on this list! I love it and so do my friends’.

Well maybe you’re right, but there are still a load of people I know who haven’t heard of it, have heard of it but haven’t seen it, or have seen it but only in an isolated episode out of sequence and haven’t seen ”what the fuss is all about”.

If you fall into any of these categories, if you haven’t bothered to give the odd sounding show a chance in its graveyard time slot on BBC2 or if you are an American reader who never bothered to watch it when it was on there, then you should.

Why? Because it’s probably the cleverest comedy of all time.

Superbly written and – just as importantly – wonderfully performed, this comedy is the vehicle that properly launched the careers of guys like Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, who you’ll have seen in every second comedy film to come out of Hollywood in the last 5 years.

To quote Wikipedia, the show’s storyline centers on the Bluth family, a formerly wealthy, habitually dysfunctional family, and is presented in a continuous format, incorporating hand-held camera work, narration, archival photos, and historical footage.

The key there is the continuous format.

If you’ve only seen one random episode then you probably didn’t get into it that much because you weren’t up on what was going on (which may well be why the show failed when it was on TV).

To truly appreciate Arrested Development you have to watch it from the very start and in order. Only then will you appreciate its greatness. Only then will the phrase ‘No touching’ mean something to you. Only then will you correct people that they aren’t magic tricks, but rather illusions. And only then will you crack up the moment you hear Europe’s The Final Countdown.

Community (US TV, 2009 – Present)

Currently being ‘rested’ in the US TV schedules, Community is another comedy that is sadly falling victim to the same problems that befell Arrested Development. It has been shunted in place of a more popular but – in my opinion at least – greatly inferior comedy. In the UK, the show is or was shown on Viva, whatever that is.

Set in a Californian Community College, the show is about the various misadventures of a diverse college Study Group made up of seven wildly different people from varying walks of life.

But the key to Community’s greatness is in how self-aware it is as a comedy. It plays up and references every sitcom stereotype going and borrowing from genres as diverse as Glee tribute episodes to zombie infestations. It even managed to do an episode where everyone was turned into clay and still worked. The character of Abed, a man who has trouble distinguishing between real life and TV is a stroke of genius as it helps to make the whole thing possible.

It also has a great theme tune.

I can imagine that Community might be too ‘meta’ for some. It’s the type of thing you’ll either love or hate. Then again though, if everyone appreciated it then it wouldn’t be on this list.

Like all American TV shows, you really have to give it a few episodes to settle in, but it’s worth the investment.

And once you’ve seen it, you can then join in the fight to save Community from the axe.

Parks & Recreation (2009-Present)

Parks & Recreation doesn’t even get shown on a minor channel in the UK – it’s never been broadcast over here at all.

And that’s a pity because not only is it a great show but it’s also doing pretty well across the pond.

Imagine a show like The Office, but set in the Parks & Recreation Department of a local council in a small US town and you have an idea of what this is about.

The show has some well-rounded, likeable characters and always provides a good laugh. As the lead, Amy Poehler is a worthy comic actress in her role as Leslie Knoppe and she is ably assisted by a stellar supporting cast.

A word of warning though; should you decide to give this show a try, you have to put up with an absolutely lousy (but thankfully short) first series. It tried to be exactly like the Office, down to Leslie Knoppe’s character being like a lite version of Steve Carrell’s office manager, but it failed miserably. There’s not a laugh in it. But the show survived to be commissioned for a second season, by which time it was played almost completely differently and become…well…funny.

Bearing that in mind, it’s a great show and you should give it a chance.

Chuck (2007-2012)

Not so much a straight up comedy, but rather a comedy drama about a man who works in the American equivalent of Currys and doubles up as a Secret Agent thanks to an accident leaving the entire CIA and NSA database in his brain.

Chuck has done what Arrested Development failed to do and survived on US Network television for years thanks to vociferous fan support. It manages to be humorous (if at times a bit silly) and yet also brings the excitement of a spy show. This week the show comes to its end in the US (in the UK it is shown on – of all channels – Living TV) and it’s fair to say that it is bowing out at the right time.

It’s another show with a good cast, and also notably a very strong guest cast ranging from the likes of Timothy Dalton and Scott Bakula to Rachel Bilson and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.

Always entertaining, Chuck is a show that isn’t well-known in the UK but is worth your time.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2005-Present)

Another show that isn’t shown in the UK (though it has apparently been shown on Virgin On Demand), Always Sunny differs from many other comedies in that the cast strive to be as unlikable as possible. Only on It’s Always Sunny would you have an actor deliberately put on weight between series in protest of the fact that generally people start to look far more polished and ‘Hollywood’ the longer a successful series goes.

Make no mistake, the small cast of It’s Always Sunny are not supposed to be likeable people, and yet because of that, they are – Mac especially,

A bit like Parks & Rec, this series only truly gets going from Season 2 when Danny DeVito joins the cast, but from then on it generally goes from strength to strength.

Yes, there are flaws like an over-reliance on the same guest cast (in my opinion) and a dreadful episode in the most recent season, but the show is almost up to 100 episodes, and by that point, other – more popular – comedies like Family Guy had lost the ability to make us laugh at all.

Next Time

On the final instalment of the 15  Under-Appreciated TV Shows You Need To Watch I bring my focus back to the UK for one of the all time classic television dramas that is largely unknown to my generation, two dramas from the pen of the same man, an unlikely choice and a show that you may have difficulty remembering was even on TV.


Doctor Who – The Invasion Review (or ‘One of the Best Dr Who Stories Ever…but also the Worst Cyberman Story’)

January 24, 2012

Let me pin my colours to the mast early in this review – I love The Invasion.

When going through a run of Dr Who stories it’s one of those I will look forward to watching the most. Sure, it’s not without its faults but the complete package is terrific. It’s also the only story so far with missing episodes that have been animated for DVD release.

The animation looks good, but I’m sure there’s a pretty major blunder here. Read on to find out what.

And yet in it’s probably the story in which the Cybermen are utilised the worst.

How can this be?

Doctor Who – The Invasion Review: What’s This One About?

The TARDIS lands in 1970s England a few years after the events of the Web of Fear. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe decide to visit Professor Travers but it turns out he has gone to American to live with his daughter Anne and has rented his house out to a Professor Watkins and his

While you can see a resemblence, I doubt many people would immediately peg that both these super-villains were played by the same man

niece Isabel (the truth being that the BBC didn’t want to pay the writers of the Yeti stories for the use of the Travers’ characters).

However, Watkins has gone missing, last seen entering the International Electromatics company headquarters a few days earlier.

One trip to the IE building later and the Doctor believes something just isn’t quite right with its smooth and sophisticated owner, Tobias Vaughan (played by Kevin Stoney). This is confirmed when the Doctor and Jamie are picked up on their way out of the building by UNIT, an intelligence organisation headed up by their old friend Colonel (now Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart.

As he confirms. there is something fishy going on with IE, and  it turns out Vaughan is in league with the Cybermen and is helping them plan an Invasion of Earth.

What follows is a story mainly about the rivalry between Vaughan and the Doctor/UNIT, while the Cybermen – though they appear in a few iconic moments such as walking down the steps of St. Pauls – are relegated to background characters and footsoldiers.

Thoughts – Incidental Music

As I say, I love this story.

The first thing that grabs me about it is the incidental music, which is different to any throughout the history of Dr Who, mainly because it’s not done by the ‘usual’ guy, Dudley Simpson and instead is done by Don Harper. Harper uses different pieces of music to suit the different scenes and moods. His UNIT theme suits the military nature well, but the best bits are reserved for his general ‘mood’ piece and the hectic ‘stings’ used for the scenes with Vaughan and Packer in the IE office. Just terrific. Up until the absolutely top notch scores used towards the end of The End of Time Part 2 (in particular Four Knocks and Vale Decem) the music in the Invasion was by a

Oooh, get you Packer. I could have done a joke involving the word fudge, but I won’t.

long way the best incidental music in the show’s history.

Kevin Stoney – Acting Superstar

But a story can’t succeed on incidental music alone, and the real reason this story is such a favourite of mine is down mainly to one man – Kevin Stoney. As Tobias Vaughan, Stoney puts in the best performance in Dr Who seen since…erm…Kevin Stoney when he played Mavic Chen in the Daleks’ Master Plan.

There is a similarity between the two stories as – at an epic 8 episodes long – the Doctor needs a more human enemy to work against. In Master Plan, Mavic Chen was the real villain of the piece though the Daleks themselves provided worthy backup. Here. the Cybermen can’t even come close to keeping up with Vaughan’s villainy. Indeed, Kevin Stoney manages to leave his previous performance as Chen completely in the shade here. He’s like a proper Bond villain, managing to be suave, debonair and charming at first glance, and 95% of the time manages to keep his cool with a sort of cat like purr to his voice. But just occasionally he’ll lose his temper, and when that happens you know he’s not a man to be messed with.

My two favourite scenes with Vaughan are the one where he asks one of his lackeys to revive a Cybermen just enough to ‘bring it out of it’s cocoon’ (it’s the delivery of the line – you have to see it) and the ultra tense scene where he demands that Professor Watkins shoot him. Of course, in that scene he’s aided not just by the spot on incidental music, but also great acting displays by everyone else in the scene as well.

I would go as far as to say that Tobias Vaughan is the best one story villain in the show’s history. The only other character that can touch him and perhaps surpass him is the Roger Delgado Master, but in fairness he had a lot more time to win me over.

Stoney would be back in Dr Who just one more time, and sadly he would be completely underutilised and hidden under a silly mask in Revenge of the Cybermen (the irony being that his character is paper thin while the Cyber Leader steals the show)

Naturally, Stoney was also present in one of the best congregations of actors ever seen – I, Claudius – and is just one of a number of reasons you should watch that show. But that’s another article for another day.

UNIT and the 1960s Vision of the Future

This story doesn’t just succeed because of Vaughan. What people might overlook is that this is the first proper UNIT story – the story that would officially set the tone for Dr Who for the next 4 years and save it from being axed. We accept Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart as part of the

There are three men acting their arses off here and one extra who couldn’t give a toss. Can you spot him?

furniture, so to speak, but to become such an integral part of Dr Who he and his UNIT team had to make a successful first impression, and they do that here.

The Brigadier was of course in the Web of Fear, but he was written in such a way that doubt was cast upon him from the start. Here, he’s the steady hand, the man behind the Doctor’s own private army. He’s played as more of the hero that we know and love.

Of course, there are differences between this ‘Pilot’ version of UNIT and what would become known as the UNIT Family a couple of seasons later. For a start, a lot of the work is done by the never-to-be-seen-again Captain Turner. And most interestingly of all, it seems to be set at a time where UNIT are far more hi-tech than it later becomes in the Pertwee era.

For example, they go about their business on a giant flying aircraft HQ that can land wherever it needs to. Also, it’s set at a time where someone in England can fly to Russia in under two hours. Obviously when this was written, people genuinely must have expected flight technology to have developed that much within 10 years (and with Concorde preparing to launch the year after, who can blame them). Over 40 years later and things haven’t come nearly as far. Oh well.

The Rest of the Cast

There really isn’t a failure among the human characters here as pretty much everyone does a sterling job of playing their parts.

First of all, it would be unfair to praise the acting of Stoney and ignore the contribution of Peter Halliday as his head of security, Packer. While he’s no doubt a dangerous man, Halliday plays Packer as a bit of a comedy sidekick to Vaughan, which I think gives him far more depth than if he was played as a colourless b00-hiss villain. In turn it also helps Stoney’s performance. Also, it works well because by this point, I think it’s fair to say that Frazer Hines has fully adapted to playing Jamie as the comedy sidekick to the Doctor and therefore the two double acts mirror each other.

Then there are the Watkins. I think it’s fair to say we can all breath a sigh of relief that the production team didn’t pay over the odds to bring back Professor Travers and Anne. Jack Watling’s over-the-top Music Hall style Old Man act just wouldn’t have worked against Vaughan. Edward Burnham plays his weak old Professor role beautifully. As I say above, his scene with Vaughan where he’s bullied into shooting him is just so good and he can take just as much credit for that as Stoney.

I know a lot of people like this Cyberman design over the other 60s ones, but I’m sorry, the sight of this one’s spindly rubber clad legs don’t inspire terror in me

And while Anne Travers was a good in the Web of Fear – a sort of prototype Liz Shaw if you like – the problem with her character (and indeed that of Zoe) is that it doesn’t work as an Audience Identification Figure. Scientists know the answers to the questions companions usually ask the Doctor, and so it just doesn’t work. Instead, we have a late 60s socialite type in the form of Sally Faulkner’s Isabel Watkins. And she’s perfectly adequate in her portrayal.

Captain Turner is merely OK though in my opinion, as he loses credibility points for the ridiculous way he says ‘Is-o-bell!! Jaymeeeee!! Where Aaaare Youuuuuuuu‘ in the sewers. That’s probably the most BBC-English delivery of a line in television history.

The Cybermen

As I say though, this is probably the weakest ‘Cyberman’ story of them all. Yes, their lack of emotion was always going to come a distant second to Vaughan’s charisma, but they are used so fleetingly that it becomes difficult to consider this a Cyberman story at all. They don’t appear until half way through and then are relegated to a few minor appearances in the sewers, a few shots of them walking through the streets and one final damp squib of a battle against UNIT at the Guinness Factory.

There’s an irony I suppose that when the Cybermen were at their most interesting (in the Tenth Planet) the story was crap and when they are at their least involved here, it’s probably the best story to have them in it.

It could be argued that this story works so well because the Cybermen are a sort of unseen menace, and that is certainly a possibility, but their overall execution here, from the crap unintelligible voices and their poorer new design, all the the way through to their weapon inconsistency – they start off with their usual chest weapons but by Episode 8 are going around with hand guns – they just seem to be a second thought. Also, we don’t actually get to see much of their Invasion at all. In that respect there should have been more to it.

By Episode 8, when they come more to the forefront as Vaughan realizes he’s in over his head, it’s fair to say the story takes a bit of a dip in quality.

Zoe and the guys share a good laugh about the sort of throwaway sexist remark that would get someone fired in 2012. Good times.

This will be the last we see of the Cybermen for some time, and while they are part of a successful story, there’s no doubt they’ve been exhausted by this point in the Patrick Troughton era. In the space of 18 stories we’ve seen the Cybermen five times. For enemies without emotions, that’s more than enough.

Random Observations

    I’ve praised the music greatly but it’s fair to say that there’s a scene in which the director uses the music incongruously. In the scene where the Cyberman has grabbed Jamie’s leg coming out of the sewer, the completely wrong musical score has been used. It doesn’t sell the threat of what’s happening at all and takes away from the tension and the acting of the scene.

  • And speaking of that scene, have you noticed that while Jamie, Zoe and Isabel believe themselves to be trapped between two sets of on-coming Cybermen, both sets are clearly coming at them from the same direction? And how does the policeman manage to get killed by the Cybermen considering he’s behind the three youngsters and walking in the same direction as them, and therefore wouldn’t come across a Cyberman before they do? And then the same happens with the UNIT soldiers. No, that just doesn’t make sense.
  • But while I’ve criticised the director there, I’ll praise him for one of the great ‘jumping out of your seat’ moments in Dr Who history. Throughout the whole story we’ve seen Vaughan call up Packer on his video phone and seen Packer’s face on the other end. but in Episode 8, Vaughan finds a Cyberman on the other end of the line. Superb.
  • The animation is very nicely done. Yes, it doesn’t really do much in the way of limb movement, and almost everything is a close up shot, but we can forgive them that.
  • What I can’t forgive them though is that they appear to have Zoe in the wrong outfit at the start of the episode. Later on in the story she’s dressed up in the same glittery catsuit she wore in the Mind Robber and she hasn’t been back to the TARDIS at any point to collect it. So my assumption is that she actually wore that at the start of the story, and changed into a new outfit to be Isabel’s model from the start of episode 2. Sloppy stuff.
  • Overall though, I’d sooner have animated episodes with plot inconsistencies than telesnap reconstructions any day of the week.
  • Here’s another plot error though…what exactly are the Cybermen doing invading Earth a few years before their own ‘first contact’ in the 1986-set Tenth Planet. It’s not said at this point that they can travel in time.
  • As I say, the story dips in quality a bit towards the end, not just because the dynamic with Vaughan changes and it becomes more about the Cybermen, but also because of the interminable amount of archive shots of missles being launched and rockets being fired. It just got repetitive and dull.
  • Oh yeah, and how exactly are the Cybermen defeated? I know their Cybership is blown up and their plans thwarted, but there are supposedly hundreds of unseen Cybermen going around London, let alone the rest of the planet. One would assume the Invasion of an entire planet wasn’t so localised.
  • There’s a scene in Episode 8 where the second in command at the missile base asks – in relation to Zoe – “Can’t we keep her on sir? She’s much prettier than a computer”. Zoe takes it in the spirit it was intended, and yet you’d imagine that said bloke would be fired for making a sexist remark in 2012.
  • Finally, it’s a pity that Episode 1 is missing, purely for the scene where the guy who gives the Doctor & co a lift in his van is callously murdered by IE security. Even in a series which deals with death on a regular basis, that seemed quite shocking on the animation. Of course, the music helped.

Doctor Who – The Invasion Review: Final Thoughts

There are a load of reasons to watch The Invasion, from a stellar cast and brilliant music to the debut of UNIT and the iconic scenes with the Cybermen in London.

But most of all, there’s Kevin Stoney. The man is superb. A brilliant actor putting in a brilliant performance for a brilliantly written character.

Brilliant.


Film Review: War Horse (or ‘An Overly Sentimental Love Story Between a Young Man and his Unfaithful Horse’)

January 22, 2012

Horses.

The French eat them, the British love them and some Americans make love to them…or so that Channel 4 documentary that is burned in the memory of anyone who saw it would have you believe.

Personally, I’ve never seen the attraction. The only encounter I’ve ever had with a horse was when one kicked me in the face on a farm when I was about 6 years old. But don’t let that make you believe I’ve got some sort of agenda against them…I don’t. Of course I’m happy in the knowledge that that particular horse is probably long since dead, but I don’t hold a grudge against an entire species. Dogs, yes (but that’s another story for another day). horses, no.

It’s just that I don’t really see what’s so fascinating about them. I personally can’t see the difference between one horse and the next. I don’t see how people can look at a horse and comment on its beauty. What makes one horse more beautiful than the next? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I have no emotional attachment to them. Why do people not have the same level of affection for cows? Or goats?

Phwoar!

Anyway, at this point you’re probably wondering why I even bothered with War Horse. Any member of the Horse World Order will be reading this already thinking ‘If he doesn’t love horses, what’s he doing going to see our film‘, and maybe they are right. But the film gets strong reviews from all and sundry and I don’t recall anyone suggesting that a prerequisite for going to see it was to be unnaturally excited at the sight of Trigger. Do you have to be a drug addict to like Breaking Bad? Or a terrorist to appreciate 24? No, of course not.

So What’s It All About?

Well would you believe it, it’s about a horse. But not just any horse…The Jesus Horse. A horse born under a wandering star. A horse that was so ‘beautiful’ that a simple, hard up farmer decided to buy it at market for far more than its worth and for a job it didn’t initially seem capable of.

But of course it was capable. The farmer’s son falls in love with it – literally – and trains it to plough the most impossible field that there ever was to plough.

The happy times ended soon after though as World War 1 was declared and the horse was sold to an officer in the army.

Without spoiling things too much, the horse manages to switch owners a further four times and pick up a big black horse sidekick (who goes the same way as every big black sidekick in TV and film history. Well…this is a Spielberg film) before managing to single-handedly stop the fighting by getting trapped in barbed wire in No-Mans Land and then find its way back to the farmer’s boy who just so happened to be in that particular trench at that particular time.

And they both lived happily ever after.

Thoughts

Before I went into this film I bumped into two different sets of people who I knew in the queue. The first couple asked me if I was looking forward to seeing it, to which I replied that I was concerned it might be over-sentimental, while the other person I met asked if I had tissues at the ready (get your mind out of the gutter).

As it happens I was right and I didn’t need tissues.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film. It flows well in my opinion – even though I’ve heard it said that it starts off too slow – and it has a decent plot and narrative. But it tries far too hard to be emotional and sentimental, and it takes the Seabiscuit (see what I did there…a horse joke) when it comes to levels of plausibility.

I can accept them trying to make a horse ploughing a field into a True Tale of Triumph Over Adversity ™, but I reached my limit at the point where the horse volunteers itself to pull an artillery gun up a hill because its mate had a gammy leg. And that was before the bit on N0-Mans Land that I mentioned above.

It was just too much. And the ridiculous thing was that I could hear people all around me sobbing away like professional mourners while I sat there with an overwhelming sense of incredulity.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not an emotionless son of a gun with a heart of stone, even though I’m sure some of you might by this point think that I am. I appreciate a good tear-jerker, a film to pull at the old heart-strings. I – like every other bloke out there despite what they might have you believe – have shed a tear over a particularly emotion-stirring piece of TV or film, but this was just ridiculous. What are the odds of a horse not only surviving an entire war, but also just so happening to be reunited with his owner mere moments before it was set to be shot between the eyes. That’s not sentimental, that’s ridiculous.

A person I could accept, and if it was a story about a person who went through roughly the same amount of trauma and coincidence I could almost warm to it, but we’re talking about a horse here. A horse. As I say, it was ridiculous and I just couldn’t see past how ridiculous it was to become even slightly emotional about it.

Also, as a side note, it wasn’t remotely surprising that for the most part, the Germans had a ‘Let them die…bwahahahahahaha’ approach to them while the British treated them like their compatriots.

And as another side note, do you think it was deliberate that they chose to have the horses owner – Albert Narracott – played with a Devonshire accent; the accent that throughout the history of British drama has generally been used for simpleton characters? Probably not.

Should You Go And See War Horse?

Despite the fact that it tries far too hard to be sentimental, it clearly worked on a lot of the people in attendance. It was a decent film and one that I’m sure many people will love. But I’m not one of them.

Maybe you have to actively like horses – I can see no way that a horse lover wouldn’t love this film.

You might like it, it’s certainly not bad, but sorry, it didn’t achieve what it set out to with me.

It’s decent. That’s all.


Film Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

January 21, 2012

It occurred to me while standing in the queue for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an 18 certificate film at the cinema.

Looking back on the films I went to in 2011, not one of them was an 18, even though in times gone by some of them would have been. So I wondered what it was about this film that deserved the highest age certificate when films like Final Destination 5, Black Swan and A Lonely Place to die only merited a 15.

Certainly it started off without incident. Maybe it was a mistake.

But then came the graphic rape scene, the harrowing retribution to it, the mutilated cat, the grizzly death chamber and that horrendous scene with the old woman and the duck.

Alright, one of those things didn’t happen, but the point is that this film was gritty. Very gritty.

What’s It About?

Mikael Blomkvist – a shamed Swedish journalist –  is asked by the head of a wealthy family and owner of one of Sweden’s largest companies to investigate the disappearance of his niece from the island that they live on, 40 years earlier.

There are no shortage of suspects as the island is still populated by other members of the man’s family, and they are mostly unwilling to talk freely on the subject.

Blomkvist is helped in his investigations by Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but damaged computer hacker who starts the film off being abused by a lawyer who controls her income.

Thoughts

I went into this film with high expectations as it has received rave reviews on the whole, with an 8.2 score on imdb.

As it turns out, the film was good, but I felt it was lacking a little bit.

At times it didn’t know whether it was a show like Jonathan Creek, a spy drama like Alias, a grim horror like Saw or a political thriller like All The Presidents Men and so the direction of the film seemed to change a fair bit as it went along.

What I’m guessing is that because it’s an adaptation of a book, certain aspects – like how the characters are thinking – are lost in the translation from print to film. Take Salander for example. She is presumably the main character in the books, especially since they are all named after her. But in the film she’s very much a secondary character to Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist.

We don’t really know what she’s thinking or why she just decides to fall in love with him. Yes, I know what some of will say – that the beauty is in the subtlety of the emotions felt by her etc – but it’s a shift that happens without too much reason or point to the plot.

Also, in spite of the fact that she has hardships – not least with the unnecessarily tawdry scenes with the lawyer – I don’t think she comes across as particularly likeable; not even in an anti-heroine sort of way.

Another reason why the translation from page to screen fails a bit is with Blomkvist’s feud with Swedish Billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström. In the film we assume that his briefly touched-upon libel case loss to Wennerström at the start of the film is simply to set up the main plot of the film. But it’s not. For probably 15 minutes after everything on the island has been wrapped up, the Wennerström storyline is then returned to as Salander decides to go all Sidney Bristow on us and sort it all out.

Again, I haven’t read the book, but I imagine it probably dealt with this sub-plot in greater detail. In the film it’s just like they ran short on plot and decided to fill up the last bit with something completely different.

Another issue I have with the film is that the mystery of the girl on the island is resolved very suddenly. In a way it’s a bit like being at school and presenting the solution to a maths problem without showing your working. All of a sudden the bad egg is revealed, and just like in most TV shows they find out who that person is (I’m not saying if they are male or female) at exactly the same moment as said-person decides to reveal themselves and go nuts.

Why can the detective never work it out while the villain still believes nobody knows what he or she is up to?

Oh, and then there’s another twist that Mr Magoo could see coming.

Now, I feel like I’m being very critical of this film. For all of my issues with it, I did enjoy it. The acting was of a good standard, I never had to resort to checking my watch despite its two-and-a-half-hour length and it was engaging. But when a film gets given very high ratings like this one has, I feel it becomes open to greater scrutiny. There are basic issues with this film that means in my opinion that it’s not as good as it thinks it is or as good as people want to believe it to be.

I was told before going to see The Artist that it would be an Emperor’s New Clothes type film – that people would like it because of what it is rather than how good it is. As it turns out that was not the case at all, but I suppose you could level that claim against this movie. It’s based on a very popular book and so the assumption is that because of that it’ll be brilliant.

As a side note, there are plenty of familiar faces in this film. For a start (and I mean that literally since he’s the first person to appear) there is the guy who looks like Maurice Roeves but isn’t, Donald Sumpter. Then at one point you hear the familiar voice of Jim Robinson himself, Alan Dale. Yes, Dale is adding to his repertoire of playing foreign nationals who all manage to sound Australian. So far we’ve had American-Australian, English-Australian and now Swedish-Australian.

Sadly Dale only appears in one scene, but at least he has lines. Why they would bother to hire a distinguished actor like Martin Jarvis and have him in one scene without any lines is beyond me.

Oh yeah…one more thing. It’s a film set in Sweden involving a mostly British actors and yet there’s no continuity between which of them are trying to play their parts with Swedish accents and which aren’t. Daniel Craig doesn’t even try. Now you don’t expect them all to go around doing impressions of the chef off the Muppets, but still…either they should all play it with Swedish accents or none of them should. Sloppy.

Should You Watch The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?

There’s a difference between agreeing that the film is as good as other people say it is, and saying that it is good. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a good film. It could have worked perfectly well as a 15 without some of the needlessly graphic scenes right enough, and it also has issues which I’ve been kind and assumed are due to parts of the plot and characterisation being lost in translation, but it is good.

But good isn’t great.

And it’s not great.


Film Review: The Artist (or ‘Why Do Old Women Seem To Bathe Themselves In Pot-Pourri Before Going Out In Public?’)

January 19, 2012

It’s fair to say that while I love classic cinema, I couldn’t be classified as a massive fan of the silent movie era.

I like the concept of it; I’m always amazed at some of the stuff that Buster Keaton could do, and I very much enjoyed Paul Merton’s three part documentary on the genre last year. But if you ask me to sit down and watch an entire silent movie, then I admit that I find it to be a drab experience. Maybe I’m watching the wrong ones, or maybe they just don’t hold up all that well.

But that’s not to say that all silent movies/TV shows don’t hold up well. Take for example the critically acclaimed and universally praised episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Hush’. In that episode the characters had the power of speech taken away by some form of demon and so the episode tells the story without dialogue. It was probably the best episode of all seven series.

I would say the difference is that in the silent movie era, they presented the films as silent because that is all technology would allow. The chances are that had sound been available, they would have used it (and that of course is why the silent movie industry died soon after ‘talkies’ came out). The Buffy episode on the other hand embraced the concept of silence and told a story around that.

And so this brings me to The Artist – a new silent movie that has just been released to strong reviews from all corners.

There’s always a chance with things like this that it’ll blindly get praise from a certain cross-section of society because of what it is rather than how good it is, so I went along to see this film with a little bit of trepidation.

What’s It About?

The Artist tells the story of George Valentin, a top actor of the silent movie era who refuses to adapt to the move to ‘talkies’ in the late 20s and early 30s. While his star fades and his affluent lifestyle diminishes, Peppy Miller – a young actress who he helped get into the industry – becomes one of the biggest stars in all of Hollywoodland, thanks to her willingness to embrace the new technology.

But Valentin and Miller have had a thing for each other from the moment they first laid eyes upon one another, so while he is at his lowest ebb and she is at her highest, will he accept her offer of help? Or is he too stubborn to move with the times?

99% of this film is silent with only a few examples of sound and speech being used in different parts of the movie. Rest assured though that when it was used, it was to great effect.

Thoughts

As I’d hoped before going into this film, this was a terrific example of silent film done well. It didn’t need to be silent but it was relevant to the plot for it to be that way. Indeed, if this wasn’t silent, it probably wouldn’t have been half as good, instead being a rather bland piece about a failing actor.

Like all silent movies there is the occasional line of dialogue that has to be printed across the screen to advance the plot, but these were used only occasionally. One such line came in the form of an interview Peppy Miller was doing with the press, where she says that Silent Actors relied upon mugging to the camera to get their point across because they couldn’t use speech. Based on some of the silent films I’ve briefly seen, I would agree. But not in this film.

In The Artist, the actors manage to get almost everything they need to get across with subtle facial expressions and gestures alone; there’s no mugging here. Yes, it goes without saying that the musical score is crucial to execution of the plot, but the actors themselves must take a great deal of credit for bringing it all to life.

And I would say that the reason they are able to do this is because they are talented actors. That might sound like a rather obvious thing to say, but what I mean is that the stars of the silent era knew only about acting in silent films and so only knew how to present themselves that way, delivering their performances with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In The Artist, the cast is filled with masters of the acting craft who have learnt about how to use expression as well as dialogue, and thus are able to effectively act out silently how they otherwise normally would.

As I say above, the occasional use of sound (such as in Valentin’s dream and at the end) is a master-stroke and enhances the viewing experience and the plot.

Undoubted star of the show – apart from Valentin’s pet dog – is Jean Dujardin as Valentin himself. Combining the acting ability I’ve already mentioned with a large helping of the physical dexterity that silent era stars needed (after all, if he’s playing one he has to act like one) he genuinely looks like someone taken out of time.

And I think that is probably the greatest strength of The Artist as a whole – the authenticity of it all. Despite it having a modern flair in its execution, it looks and sounds like something made in the 30s. From the moment the film stars with its old-fashioned credits and the brilliantly clever 4:3 ratio you feel as though you are watching something from a completely different era. The only reason that you know it is a new film is because of easily recognisable actors like John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell and Jack Bauer’s dad from 24. My only shock was that Alan Dale didn’t make a cameo.

Should You Watch The Artist?

Years ago I went to see The History Boys. It was probably the only film I’ve ever seen people walk out of, making some derogatory remarks towards ‘f…ing public school snobs’ as they left. Why they bothered to even go and see the film in the first place I’ll never know, but the fact is that not every film is for everyone. Personally I have little time for mindless action films, Wayans Brothers comedies, post-apocalyptic fayre or Japanese Horror.

So I won’t say that everyone should go and see The Artist. I appreciate that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I sat through this film with a smile on my face all the way through though. It was superbly executed; charming, dramatic and funny in equal measures. And it didn’t outstay its welcome. The chances are that had it gone on for another 30 minutes or an hour it might have become a bit tiresome. The only downside of the whole experience was sitting a couple of rows behind a triumvirate of old women who – as tends to be their want – smelled like they had bathed in a vat of pot-pourri perfume before coming to see the film. Every breath I took stung.

If you don’t like old films, if you lack the patience to watch a movie with no dialogue, if the sort of music from that era annoys you, if your cinema-going experience is defined by special effects and big budget action sequences, or if you’re the sort of person who found Bridesmaids to be a high calibre production (and I say that with only a mild sense of kidding) then this is not a film for you.

But don’t think this is a film that only a very small sub-section of society can enjoy.

I thought it was…wait for it…a work of art (and I can hear you groaning now).

 


TV Review: Homeland (a Tense Political Thriller for Fans of Shows Like 24 and The West Wing)

January 15, 2012

The good thing about US Television is that whenever a quality TV show comes to an end, there are usually a host of new ones there to replace it come September.

Every year viewers look forward to the new US television season to not only see the return of the shows they already love, but new ones that might well be even better. Sometimes promising new shows with huge Network support fall by the wayside (like the Jimmy Smits law drama – Outlaw – which should have been a lot better than it was) and other times shows on minor networks become massive critical successes.

Needless to say there isn’t enough time in our lives to check out every new show that comes along, and one that passed me by was the tense political drama Homeland on Showtime – the network that brings us Dexter.

But as I noticed it winning award after award for being the best new TV show of 2011 – and in some cases, the best TV show of 2011, period – I decided to give it a go.

And I’m glad I did.

What’s Homeland About?

Claire Danes – having emerged from the rock she’s been hiding under since the 1990s – plays Carrie Mathison; a CIA intelligence officer called who has been informed by a trusted source that a US prisoner of war has been turned by Al-Qaeda, and is planning on carrying out a terrorist act on US soil.

Within days of finding that news out, a routine military operation in the Middle East unearths Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) – a US Marine missing-presuned-dead for 8 years – locked up in an underground bunker.

As Brody returns to the US to a hero’s welcome, Mathison believes something isn’t right about him and that he has been turned. So with the help of her mentor at the CIA she surveilles him privately, without the knowledge of her boss.

And as she suspects, there’s just something not quite right about Brody.

Thoughts

Sometimes it’s very easy to say too much or expand upon things for the sake of filling out space.

But I don’t think too much needs said here.

Spread over eleven 55 minute episodes and a 90 minute finale, Homeland is the best new TV show of the 2011 season that I have seen.

The brilliance of lies not just in good story-telling but also in the depth given to each of the key characters in the story and in the quality of the acting that brings those characters to life.

Particular praise must go to Danes, who is almost uncomfortable to watch at times as a CIA officer who goes way beyond obsession with her job. It’s not just her though, as Damien Lewis and the oddly named Mandy Patikin (I say oddly named because Mandy is a big bloke with a beard) also put in classy performances as Brody and Saul Berenson too.

Another noteworthy thing about the show is that it doesn’t necessarily show the CIA vs Terrorists relationship in the black and white way we’ve come to expect from US drama output. That’s a pretty bold and brave move.

There is a lot I could say about the plot and the amount of tension, twists and turns that it brings, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. If you enjoyed shows like the West Wing or 24 then you will enjoy this.

To give it nothing but praise would be wrong though as I felt it slowed down a little bit in episodes 8-10 and there were also some loose plot threads that were just kinda dropped (highlight the hidden paragraph to see what I’m talking about if you’ve watched it already)

Examples of things that I felt were quietly dropped without any real conclusion included Estes asking the guy working with Carrie to keep an eye on what else she’s up to, the leak inside the CIA and a firm resolution on who passed the guard the razor blade. Maybe they’ll be returned to in Season 2?

Homeland will return for a second season later on in 2012, and I can tell you without spoiling anything that if you give the first season a chance (and for people in the UK who like to get their TV output from their…well…TV, it’ll be shown on Channel 4 either later this month or next month) you’ll be counting down the weeks and months until you can see it.


Doctor Who – The Mind Robber Review (Or ‘We Can Get Away With Anything If We Put Our Minds To It’)

January 14, 2012

In the previous review of the Dominators, I mentioned how the poor standard of writing and plot resulted in the story being reduced from six episodes to five. The problem with that was that they needed to add an extra episode onto a different story.

Following on from the previous week’s cliffhanger, the Doctor appears to have had a haircut. Three cheers for continuity.

In what must go down as a real stroke of fortune for the production team, the next story – The Mind Robber – was the perfect one in which to do it, and so episode 1 is set pretty much entirely in the TARDIS set, but for a couple of scenes set in what is essentially an empty studio set. And yet it works.

The potential problems for the story didn’t stop there though, as Frazer Hines was laid up with chicken pox for a week. Usually this would result in the character of Jamie being written out for a week and a call for frantic re-writes.

But because it’s the Mind Robber, they can simply hire an actor that looks and sounds absolutely nothing like him to take his place and have it work as part of the wacky script.

How? Read on MacDuff…

Doctor Who – The Mind Robber Review: What’s This One About?

To get away from the volcanic eruption on the island on Dulkis, the Doctor takes emergency precautions and removes the TARDIS from time. But in the white void the TARDIS is hijacked by an unknown force and is blown up.

The next thing they know, the travellers find themselves in a world of fiction controlled by a Master Brain where anything goes. As they look to find a way out and back to the TARDIS they travel through a forest of words, a labyrinth and a fairytale castle, meeting famous fictional characters such as Gulliver, Rapunzel, The Madusa and Cyrano de Bergerac along the way.

Thoughts – Anything Goes Because It Can

The key to the Mind Robber is the randomness of it all. By setting it in a world of fiction, anything goes and as it happens, it usually does.

If you stopped to question the flow of events it would make absolutely no sense. For example, how and why did the TARDIS blow up? How does changing Jamie’s face also

As you can see, they’ve gone for the Tesco Value sets. At least Wendy Padbury is wearing an outfit that actually suits her though.

change his height and accent? How can they suddenly go from being in the centre of a deep labyrinth to outside at the base of a mountain leading up to a castle? Who exactly is the enemy in this story and why do they want to take over the Earth?

But these questions ultimately don’t matter all that much. As a viewer you accept it because it takes place in a world where anything and everything goes. Yes, there are a few things that are just sloppy in the way its written but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The thing is that by placing the story in this setting, the extraordinary becomes ordinary, but not in a bad way. A forest of words? I can see an entire story being based on a premise like that, but here it’s just glossed over as something a bit different in the landscape. The Minotaur? That’s just something to pre-occupy the Doctor and Zoe half way through episode 3. But it works because you accept it as a smaller segment of a larger whole.

The easy comparison to make with this story is The Celestial Toymaker because of its ‘land of fiction’ elements, but the Mind Robber is so far in advance of the William Hartnell story, both in terms of plot and realisation. Indeed, throughout the entire run of Dr Who there has never been anything truly comparable to this story, and that’s a shame because it’s exactly the sort of thing that Dr Who can do really well.

From the file marked ‘The RSPCA Wouldn’t Be Happy’ here’s a brown horse painted white with a horn stuck on its head

Regular readers may recall that I said a similar thing about the Enemy of the World. When Dr Who goes out of its Man vs Monsters comfort zone, it can excel. But it rarely ever does leave it, and that’s a shame.

Characterisation

Another area where the Mind Robber succeeds is in its casting.

The great Bernard Horsefall makes his Dr Who debut as Gulliver (from Gulliver’s Travels). The way he performs the role, both in terms of line delivery and physical performance, is so good that you just couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. And the way it’s written so he can only speak lines written for him in the book is genius.

Christopher Robbie will come back to Dr Who in a few years and play The Greatest Cyberman in History in Revenge of the

Hamish Wilson bows out as Jamie 2 in a blaze of glory

Cybermen, but in this story he does a wonderful turn as a hammy comic book hero from ‘the year 2000’ – The Karkus.

The Master (no, not that one) is a very clever character as well. Up until episode 4 all we see of him is his back to camera as he belts out menacing instructions from his base, and yet it turns out he’s a genial old man being controlled my a computerised brain.

And having the basic ‘enemy on the ground’ being rather wonderful looking toy clockwork soldiers is brilliant.

The only problems I have with the casting are that the kids that the Doctor meets can’t act (but that’s par for the course with British child actors) and that the girl playing Rapunzel kept stumbling over her lines. It maybe won’t surprise you to know that imdb has this as her only acting role.

Random Observations – Including Things That Don’t Even Make Sense Here

  • The Doctor tells Jamie and Zoe to say that the Minotaur, Madusa and the Unicorn don’t exist even when they don’t necessarily know it to be true, and yet the Doctor refuses to reciprocate when it comes to The Karkus. Hypocrite.
  • Zoe is from the year 2000? Wow, the people in the late 1960s really did have unrealistic expectation levels for technological advancement. Also, in a bit of sloppy writing she identifies her home town as simply ‘The City’. Doesn’t it have a name?
  • The bit where Zoe suddenly decides she’s off and walks through a light gate alarm she knows only too well will go off and get them caught is very poor. It’s just an excuse

    Now come on, you have to admit this looks like an interesting story based on this picture.

    to move the plot to its final stage, but it’s done so clumsily.

  • And why is she so determined to have a look at Madusa knowing what will happen to her?
  • At least though she’s in an outfit that actually suits her, which makes a change from the Dominators.
  • As the replacement Jamie, I think Hamish Wilson is fantastic. Not necessarily in a ‘he’s a good actor’ kind of way, but just because of his brilliant (and genuine) Scottish accent. His delivery of the line “We don’t stand a chance” at the end of Episode 2 is the most passionately delivered line in the show since Josef Furst’s “Nothing in ze vorld can stop me now”
  • From the file marked ‘They wouldn’t get away with that these days’, the production team achieved the effect of the Unicorn not by getting a white horse, but by painting a brown horse white and adding a horn to it. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it Morrisey.
  • The White Robots suffer from that problem that befalls a lot of Dr Who ‘monsters’ – they suddenly decide to destroy everything – including themselves – at the end for no good reason.
  • The security system of the castle really leaves a lot to be desired. The Doctor manages to fool them into thinking he is the Karkus by putting on a very loose German accent and simply saying he that’s who he was.
  • It’s never explained why the TARDIS blew up or how it brought itself back together again. I wonder if this is an issue with adding an extra episode, and had that episode never been added, how would the story have even started? How would they have got to the land of fiction?
  • Then again, Episode 5 is the shortest Dr Who episode ever at a mere 18 minutes long. With other episodes only being around the 20 mark, maybe we shouldn’t give them credit for writing a 5th episode after all. Maybe they just added 5 extra minutes of plot and cut the length of the other 4 episodes to suit.
  • I really don’t know why, but a line from one of the little children has stuck with me for years. Incongruously a child asks ‘Is it a game’ not once, but twice. Yes, I know I’m sad, but I’ll occasionally just answer a question my brothers asks with ‘Is it a game?’. It annoys him every time so it makes it all worthwhile.
  • The sound and picture quality in Episode 5 is almost too good.
  • There’s a sequel to the Mind Robber with Jamie, Zoe & The Sixth Doctor done by Big Finish Production. It’s called Legend of the Cybermen. No, I know it doesn’t sound like a sequel to the Mind Robber, but it is. It’s just that Big Finish have decided to include the Cybermen and/or Daleks in EVERYTHING because Nick Briggs loves himself and his supposed ability to do their voices. Coming Soon from Big Finish Productions – Pudding of the Daleks – a sequel to the Ambassadors of Death.
  • And for those of you who read the Dominators review, have you spotted the difference with the corresponding picture here?

Doctor Who – The Mind Robber Review: Final Thoughts

While not without its flaws, the Mind Robber is a daring and well put together Dr Who story. Often the best ones are the ones that try to be a bit different and move away from the standard format. If there were another 10 stories like this it most likely wouldn’t stand out, but since it’s almost in a category to itself, it does.

This is one of the classic Dr Who stories and I’d urge you to see it if you haven’t already.