Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

The Rain

The Rain is effectively a Danish, post-apocalyptic young adult novel, there was really no way I wasn’t going to watch it. It ticked all of the boxes for the type of things I gravitate towards, but then have no idea why I’m really watching it. I guess Britain and America can make any amount of shows that are fairly mediocre and yet still get audiences, why shouldn’t Denmark.

Don’t go in expecting a plot that really makes any sense. The setup is that the rain makes people get sick, one drop and you’re a foaming gibbering dead person walking. Simone and Rasmus are just children when they find themselves all alone in a bunker as the world outside disappears. 6 years later they emerge, join a passing group of other young adults and set off on a slightly incoherent quest.

The eight episodes play out pretty much as you’d expect, hitting as many tropes as they can along the way. Most of the characters get little flashbacks to show you who they were before the disaster, and there are some glimpses of interesting ideas there, but none of them go anywhere. How any of them survived any length of time is a bit of a mystery as their decision making is dubious at best and they are very easily distracted by a whole network of love triangles and secret crushes. The acting is all solid and Alba August as Simone is particularly interesting to watch doing a really good job portraying someone who is still a child, but also has to be the adult for everyone. Netflix offers an option of a dubbed version, but you lose too much of the characters and I lasted less than 5 minutes before it drove me to distraction and I reverted to subtitles.

The setting is at least something different from the usual America, and some of the scenery and even rundown city settings are really stunning, definitely making a change from the usual filming locations of warehouses in Vancouver. At eight episodes long, it’s a short sharp burst that doesn’t really set the world alight, but it is passingly entertaining. N

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13 Reasons Why: Season 2

Could I ask that before you read this review, you go and have a look at my review of season 1? I normally try to make reviews of individual seasons stand alone, but there’s a lot of things from the first season review that I’d like to build on.

OK?

Some of the more problematic elements of the first season are not only still present in season two, but are even more problematic. I use the word ‘problematic’ quite pointedly, because this isn’t a show that can be taken lightly and evaluated just as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s talking about incredibly serious and delicate issues – harassment, assault, sexual violence, and suicide and it has to take responsibility for that. It can’t just be discussed as a ‘teen show’, that can sweep bad writing and story choices under the rug and shrug nonchalantly that it’s ‘only’ a silly high school drama. Glee just about got away with its wild lurches between cheesy insanity and punchy drama. A show who’s very title is referencing reasons why a teenage girl killed herself cannot get away with it.

The characters in the second season are asking who is responsible for Hannah’s suicide, and if anyone could have stopped it. Hannah’s mother is taking the school to court because they did not act to stop the bullying. The responses to that action are the fundamental flaw of the series which made me furious. After a student commits suicide and a second attempts it (and a host of other serious incidents such as a fatal car crash) how did anyone think it was appropriate to have all of these children testifying in open court with minimal support? I’m sorry, but how is it possibly acceptable for adults to be putting children on the stand when they know they will be talking about physical, emotional and sexual abuse, in front of their accusers? Then sending them back to the very place and people who are accused of failing to respond appropriately.

The issues of the first season come back again. None of the characters act or look like they’re high school students (16-18?). They’re all covered in tattoos, they drink and swear like proverbial sailors and seem to have complete freedom with hardly a glance or a word from their parents. Every now and then an adult makes a sudden declaration of responsibility, but it’s so little, so late that it’s just insulting. There is an interesting discussion to be had around who is responsible for a teenage suicide, but that’s not what happens. Everyone is covering up and playing stupid and unnecessary games, and the worst offenders are the adults who utterly utterly fail to even try to learn any lessons, instead compounding them further. Maybe this is a true reflection of the insanity that goes on in schools (in America), but if it is, then reality is unbelievable and this needs to be a documentary series not a drama. I spent the whole season in a complete sense of disbelief, angry at characters and writers alike.

Quite beyond all the above problems, the second season is considerably weaker because it lacks the structure of the first season. Each episode focusses on one person’s testimony, with their voice acting as a narrator. It’s good to hear their points of view (unreliable narrators that they of course are), but it feels fake. The narration does not actually sound like it’s their testimony, it jumps around in time and is just not believable. At first it looks like the polaroid’s will form a set of things, but that structure is even weaker and quickly falls aside. We find out there was a huge amount of additional relationships and stuff going on during the timeframes in season 1 that we’d never seen any indication of, and I really don’t think that it would hang together if you actually check people’s actions. Oh, and there’s a ghost, that’s never a good sign.

I’m being very critical of the series, but I can’t deny that I watched the whole thing the weekend it came out. The actors may not be teenagers and the material may not make any sense, but they deliver it incredibly powerfully. If the setting had been a small university, making the characters just that little bit older and more reasonably independent from their parents and teachers, that would have made it all a bit more believable. Instead there is a lot of talent going into something that’s fundamentally flawed, and more importantly the incredibly important stories of what teens are going through is undermined and left untold.

The Alienist

This is very generic. Even the things about it that are shocking do so in a way that these days feels very generic. That’s probably a bit of a damning indictment of the level of sexual violence on television today make the prostitution of young boys and their murder something that’s not terribly remarkable. The beautifully created period setting adds a slight other-worldliness to everything, I was never sure whether I was watching events and characters that were realistic to the period, or if it was an anachronistic fantasy.

The plot moves at a good rate, and for me there were just the right number of twists and turns, steps forward and backwards. Similarly the various factions involve play off each other well, with the ‘heroes’ not just trying to find the bad guys, but also work around members of the police who are not moving with the times as much as anyone might like. It’s not terribly creative, but it is a very well structured story.

The generic-ness of the characters doesn’t work quite so well unfortunately, it’s all been seen before and that just makes it a bit tiresome. The somewhat clunking dialogue also doesn’t help. It’s a shame because it’s a very good cast who have all delivered very good performances elsewhere. I don’t think any of them were necessarily trying their hardest here, but the material they were working with wasn’t really giving them much opportunity.

I found this a solid way to pass a few hours in a pretty disposable kind of way.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1

I’ve been percolating this review for a while, and even a couple of months after the season finished, I’m still not entirely certain whether the show is any good, and whether I enjoyed it. It’s going to be hard to review this without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I’m a Star Trek fan of old, but I’m not blind to the fact that previous series have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not holding Discovery to any gold standards. Star Trek has always had phases of dark and powerful drama, and phases of cringe-worthy cheesiness. I’m not sure I remember any of the previous incarnations swinging quite back and forwards as widely or as quickly as Discovery does, but I could easily be miss-remembering that.

The set up for Discovery is tricky. It’s set in the television timeline (not the alternate one the new films are in) and chronologically between Enterprise and the original series. That placement is immediately tricky because they’re constrained by existing ‘history’. Except they’re not. I never really worked out how it’s supposed to fit because it seemed to me that there technologies and events that just didn’t fit into the chronology. I did try not to get distracted by things like why the magic instant-travel thing had never been mentioned, but I found it very hard, I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.

Beyond that, the series had a few other problems too.

Star Trek is always about characters, about a crew that’s working together to make things better. That’s Roddenberry’s vision and whether it’s realistic or not, I do believe that it’s a fundamental criteria for being a Star Trek series. The crew of Discovery struggled to jell. Just as the tone of episodes swung across the spectrum of gruesome to daft, so did the characters, each of whom was playing a different tone, making it hard for them to bond. Particularly given (VAGUE SPOILER ALERT) so many of the characters ended up being deceptive or fundamentally changing over the 14 episodes. The whole “what’s going on with Lorca” thing got a old quite quick and fundamentally left the series feeling a bit rudderless. Michael’s mixture of human and vulcan felt muddled and frankly a bit of a low budget Spock. Stamets wandered all over the place thanks to the ridiculous mushrooms. Tilly was almost exclusively played for comedy (although she did it very well) and Saru was sorely under-developed. Then there was a revolving door of other characters where I was never sure if they were supposed to be important or not, having set you up for that failure in the pilot episode.

There were moments and episodes that could easily be classic Star Trek episodes (Mudd and the timeloop was absolutely outstanding), but there were also too many episodes that left me rolling my eyes and wondering what the writers were thinking (space mushrooms? Really?!).

Fundamentally I think the series moved too quickly. Jumping to the mirror universe was done too soon, we’d barely got used to this universe. Nothing ever felt settled, so no ‘change’ ever felt earned or impactful to the audience. There was a lot of good potential here, and things could improve if the second season takes it a bit more gently, although they need a strong presence to replace the captain (Hello, to Jason Isaacs). I remain almost as mystified and intrigued about where this series is going to go as I was before it came out.

Lost in Space: Season 1

There are some concepts that just sort of stick with me, and it doesn’t matter how many times they’re done I will always tune in and be interested to see what new spin has been brought to it. Lost in Space is one of those concepts, well really it’s Swiss Family Robinson at its core, just the variation of setting it in space. There’s something about that core concept of a family of capable people pretty much on their own. I don’t even mind the film version.

I watched the whole 10 episodes on Netflix over just a couple of days. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that it was good, I also had a jigsaw I wanted to do and it seemed to rain every time I ventured out of the house. It was a step above background entertainment, but it’s certainly not going to be winning any awards.

The biggest thing to get over is that some of the core stuff of Lost in Space was kind of ignored. Firstly, they weren’t in space at all but crash landed on a planet, and then they very quickly find a lot of people. That added some interesting dynamics, but did rather change the show. I missed the focus of just the Robinson family, Dr Smith and Major West. The larger cast just felt like it crowded things and gave too many options.

What is better handled is making the Robinson family a lot richer. They’re not the perfect family of the 60s, or even the slightly-flawed-but-not-really family of the film. There’s a lot more backstory and complexity to the relationships which makes each character stronger, more independent and more interesting. Those characters are delivered by some good casting, and the talent of the younger actors impressed me, particularly their range and ability to deliver well timed comedy alongside some subtler drama.

It’s on the cheesier end of the spectrum, for a more family audience. There are some dark things going on, but they’re skimmed over very quickly. Solutions to problems often rely on magical science and extremely timely coincidences that get a little frustrating. But the pacing of episodes and the season over all is pretty solid, certainly enough to keep me watching back to back long enough for my Netflix app to check that I was still actually alive.

It’s no great revelation of a show, but it’s good enough, and that will do quite nicely.

Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen): Season 1

An 8 part Danish thriller – yup, of course it’s on BBC Four.

I enjoyed this series immensely. At just 8, 45 minute episodes (broadcast in pairs each week) it didn’t outstay its welcome at all, powering through without too much unnecessary padding or red herrings. There were occasions that it felt like they’d maybe had a slightly longer series in mind, going into more back-story on the characters with more use of flashbacks, focussing each episode on a small number of characters. The end result actually has only a very small number of flashbacks which while they did what was needed, did feel a little odd at times, like we were only seeing the tip of an iceberg.

Just as the flashbacks are very focused, the same is true of the overall storyline. I found myself slightly missing the wrong turns and dead ends that most thrillers have. Everything here progressed fairly steadily and smoothly towards the conclusion. It’s boiled down to the bare bones and only ever has what is necessary, which is satisfying and impressively intense, but occasionally a little too easy. The ending does however manage the impressive trick of being both predictable and surprising and kept me rethinking things.

Even within that time they find room for some character development for quite a wide range of characters, both above and below ground. Johannes Lassen as Philip the head of the investigation team is impressive, delivering a flawed and conflicted character, but one that’s also in control and professional. He’s a good centre for a show like this. I could have lived without the romantic element with the negotiator, but it wasn’t pushed too much and did enrich her role a bit, so I’ll allow it. The hostages are a diverse and interesting group even with the limited screen time each one gets.

I don’t think this got much in the way of press, and it’s not got a ‘hook’ like The Bridge, or The Killing, but it actually makes both of them look flabby and a bit clunky. So I hope this turns into a regular series.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1

I gave this show a try for no particular reasons. I knew it had won awards and praise, but not so much that I felt I absolutely had to watch it, particularly given that no one I knew was actually watching it. Nothing about the brief blurb I read particularly connected with me, there weren’t any actors that I recognised and to be honest the trailer rather put me off. I think I probably just watched it because I couldn’t face surfing through Netflix’s endless lists so I just plumped for the thing it was advertising at the top. From that incredibly apathetic start came one of my favourite experiences watching television for a long time.

I think ‘charming’ is probably the word that I’d most use. Which is a little odd because there’s a lot of weight and depth to the show. Just like the main character – on the surface there’s politeness and wit and bubbliness; but underneath is real emotion, heartache even; not to mention some well delivered vulgarity.

The blurb will make you expect a TV show about being a stand-up comic, particularly a female one; however it’s as much about being a ‘good’ Jewish housewife, about defying expectations. It’s not about whether she’s a comic who happens to be those things, or a housewife who happens to be a comic. Mrs Maisel is a fully realised character, a REAL character, one who is still working out who she is and what she wants to be, while dealing with the expectations and perceptions of all those around her, and that she puts on herself.

There are some really beautiful moments throughout the series. They’re so exquisitely written that I could write entire essays about them. The writers do not constrain themselves with standard approaches, they write just like life – serious ideas that are surrounded with comedy, or stand up routines that are full of pure emotion. I laughed at sad bits, cried at funny bits, and literally applauded the screen. I wanted to watch the whole thing without stopping, but I also wanted to savour it and make it last longer.

There are some series that seem unremarkable in offering, and even on first glance if you’re not paying attention, when you’re watching can seem nothing special. But a little bit of thought and focus and you’ll find something that will really stick with you and you’ll cherish. That’s Mrs Maisel.

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