Archive for the ‘ Fantasy ’ Category

Preacher: Season 1

I spent quite a lot of time while watching the ten episodes of Preacher not really fully understanding what was going on. Although it’s based on a graphic novel that did ring a vague bell with me, I had utterly no clue what the subject or tone of the show was going to be. Even for someone who watches quite a lot of shows that fall into the broad genre of ‘weird stuff’, this still felt very fresh and new. Yes there are elements that feel a bit familiar, Dogma, Supernatural, Good Omens… anything that’s got that theme of angels and religion not quite being entirely on the up-and-up. Combined with things like Twin Peaks and Fargo for the small town quirkiness. But overall I never really knew where it was going to go at any point and some of the reveals left me laughing with stunned disbelief.

The thing that really made me keep watching though was the style of it. Fargo is another touchpoint here, as is some of Tarantino’s stuff with the same quirky, self-knowing sense of humour combined with occasional violent and gory brutality. Preacher could turn on a dime from cryptic plotting to shocking violence and then break the tension with perfectly time dry humour – the simple comedic power of a quiet “huh”.

Style gets you a long way, which is a good job because there were a few points where things really dragged. The flashback sequences got a bit dreary, and repetitive (yes, I know there was a reason for that repetition, but it doesn’t make it less tedious). Character development was not necessarily the most coherent and consistent that I’ve ever seen, which wasn’t helped by the fact I often really struggled to understand what the characters were saying. I laughed out loud the first time they put subtitles up for the character with the severe speech impediment, because I didn’t find him any harder to understand than the thick Texas and Irish accents other characters chewed through.

It seemed a strange choice for Amazon to release Preacher as weekly episodes rather than as a box set, as it certainly played best watched in big chunks. I’m not entirely certain that the first episode by itself would have brought me back a week later. The unpredictability and freshness of the series are what really make it work and I felt that was served best by watching it in big chunks rather than episodically, but now that the whole thing is available, I’d heartily recommend it.

Lucifer: Season 1

Lucifer,_titleAided by the tragic demise of my sky dish, I blitzed my way through Lucifer on Amazon Prime over the space of a few days. It’s something of a one trick pony kind of show, it’s a good trick, which is enough to carry the 13 episode season, but the lack of other tricks (or ponies… I’m not quite sure about this metaphor) is a constantly niggling irritation.

The pony in question is the titular Lucifer. “Devil gets bored of hell and runs away to LA to run a nightclub” is a pretty good pitch. Added to that idea is the complexity of the character which makes him so much more than the stereotypical devil, which he himself gets very cross about. He doesn’t consider himself evil, in fact the very opposite – he punishes evil. He doesn’t force people to do evil things, he merely encourages people to follow their desires and takes satisfaction in punishing them when their desires aren’t all that they should be. He does have a sense of morality that doesn’t really match most people’s, but frankly when he explains his reasoning it kind of makes sense. He’s also got some pretty serious issues with his father of course. The elegance and complexity of the character, make a lot more sense when you realise it’s actually Neil Gaiman’s character from his Sandman series. Heaven knows nothing else in this series has that level of talent.

When you get away from Lucifer’s character and story you find yourself in the familiar, tedious and clumsy worlds of a procedural cop show. It’s “Castle, but with the devil instead of a writer” and the way he’s clumsily brought into each case is painful beyond belief. I also unfortunately just didn’t get anywhere near the same complexity, depth, or (sadly) acting talent from his partner’s character. She just felt very flimsy and insubstantial, like she wasn’t quite grounded in the show around her. It’s possible she lost me at the moment she revealed she named her daughter Trixie, which even Lucifer points out is a stripper name.

The show is pretty much worth watching for Lucifer and Tom Ellis’ portrayal. He’s incredibly charismatic and manages the dramatic shifts in tone from charming to terrifying at incredible speed. His character development and story is fascinating, and his interactions with those that really know who he is have a tremendous depth and history that leaves you wanting to know more. It’s just a shame that the mortal side of the deal is cheesy, obvious and amateur.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

strange_norrellI’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long for this book to make it to the screen, but after the wait I’m very glad that it ended up as a seven part miniseries with the BBC. For a start the BBC can generally be trusted to do a faithful adaptation, taking the tone and essence of a story while not being so tied to the details of the original that they reproduce flaws or fail to adapt for a different medium. Also seven parts, while a rather odd length, was perfect to show the evolution of the world and the characters, but avoided the slight dragginess of the original breeze block of a book.

What I loved most about the book and what this adaptation captured perfectly were the quirkiness and the sense of wonder. Susannah Clarke created a rich and deep world, and most importantly left elements of the history slightly muddled. Different people see and remember events differently; fact to one person is legend to another and the audience can never really know what the truth is. It’s wonderfully immersive and I never felt like I was stupid for not understanding something, or overwhelmed with explanations.

The other strength of the book that is beautifully recreated here is the complexity of the characters. Rather than the traditional simplicity of good guys and bad guys there are a collection of individuals with their own priorities, ambitions, flaws, courage and beliefs. Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are truly superb and show the complexity of their characters with impressive subtlety. It’s not really the plot about the restoration of English Magic, or the threat of the Fairy that is the centre of the story, but the shifting relationship between the titular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Their story is epic, but is told in relatively small moments and acts, each character insecure and uncertain, acting and reacting until the immensely satisfying conclusion.

The production values are everything you’d anticipate from a period production for the BBC. It also matches the tone of the book perfectly, it’s not the hyper-realistic detail that you might be used to, but at times it feels very much like you’re looking at sets and manufactured locations. It’s sort of as if you’re watching a production, rather than watching something that’s supposed to be as if you’re there. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it makes it feel like you’re watching a tale being told, acknowledging that it’s a story. It works really well with the other-worldliness of the story.

I really enjoyed this series. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it’s also really entertaining with plenty of wit and laugh out loud moments. I can really see this becoming a classic.

Game of Thrones: Season 4

Game of ThronesI’m not sure whether it was lowered expectations or a genuine improvement, but for the most part I enjoyed this season of Game of Thrones a lot more than the previous couple. It felt like there was a higher proportion of time spent on the more interesting storylines, a greater focus on the more rounded characters and a more even distribution of action, comedy and intrigue.

It’s hard to make generalised statements about the show because each thread has different pace and quality, but I really can’t be bothered to write a 17 page essay looking at each one individually. Broadly though, it felt like many of the characters were actually maturing and developing, reaching milestones that were significant enough to move things along to a new phase. It’s not that there haven’t been major steps before, but often those just meant the complete ending of a thread (Ned Stark, Rob Stark, Khal Drogo). This season characters have made commitments in a more non-suicidal way, so we can look forward to seeing the fallout of that for them, and those around them .

Many of the characters, when faced with these challenges have been forced out of their whininess and into action and it very much suits them. Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, Jon, Daenerys, Jamie, Bran and even Circe have been forced to commit themselves and their spirit has made them considerably more interesting to watch. They all feel like they’re a bit more involved with the bigger picture and what is right for their families and those who follow them, not just selfishly pursuing power. This helped bring the dispirate threads together more, although the near misses between characters was still epically frustrating.

I’m less fond of the more ‘wibbly’ storylines and anything that involves mystical wifflings. I still have no understanding or interest in whatever Stannis and the red haired witchy woman are on about, and Bran and his visions of trees also sort of pass me by. Splitting the difference are the stories around Jon Snow, the dispute with the wildlings around the wall is interesting, but the stuff about the White Walkers just went straight past me and I couldn’t help but giggle every time zombies appeared. Those three storylines also felt very far removed from all the other stories, in both tone and location.

After a relatively successful season, I was rather frustrated by the final two episodes. The penultimate episode focussed exclusively on one story and sadly it was one of the ones I wasn’t fussed about and then even worse it was really just one extended battle scene. It was well directed etc, but I just didn’t care. The last episode also left me rather cold, I’m not sure whether it was just the particular stories it focussed on, but rather than feel excited for the next season, I actually felt like this could be a good point to stop watching. It felt like decisions had been made (which was satisfying) but I don’t feel any enthusiasm for seeing how it works out.

I still tend to have to either pause or store up questions to ask my housemates questions about the details (they’ve read the books and I haven’t) because the finer details are passing me by. Words that are said with clear significance by characters I have to follow up on, particularly frustrating when it’s some of the last scenes of the season and clearly I’ve missed something huge. I don’t *think* it’s me being stupid, and I’m sure there are more elegant ways of reminding people of significant previous events. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Petyr (Littlefinger) Baelish’s extremely annoying and near spontaneous development of a thick Irish accent which completely threw me every scene he was in.

I always feel out of step on Game of Thrones. I just don’t agree that it’s the amazing piece of television that critics and the mass populace seem to think it is. There are some outstanding performances and the production values are certainly incredible, but in terms of story and structure it’s a meandering mess. There are better fantasy books and writers out there, better multi-thread series, and better grown up series using the violence and sex that’s allowed on cable to better effect. Game of Thrones is ok enough, and I’m glad there is a fantasy series with this much money being spent, but it could be so much better if it had used better source material.

American Horror Story: Coven (Season 3)

American Horror StoryI love the structure of American Horror Story which offers a completely new start each season – new story, new setting, new characters and new horror. It means that I was able to dislike season 2 (Asylum) and give up after a couple of episodes, but still come back for season 3 (Coven).

My issue with Asylum was that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, and because it was set in the past in an entirely unfamiliar setting, I found it very hard to engage and care about any of it. Moving Coven back to the present and having a couple of more accessible characters made it feel less like an uphill battle.

Mind you, part of what made it easier to watch is also something of a failing – I just didn’t find it particularly scary or unpleasant. Yes, there were moments and ideas that were grim, but as things went on and everything just layered on top of each other it became diluted. While avoiding spoilers as much as possible, there was so much coming and going, that every time a character departed it felt less and less permanent. And eventually you just become numb to the physical tortures, like you’re watching an old Batman where the violence is mitigated with ‘pow’ and ‘bam’ stickers. I wasn’t shocked, horrified, or appalled by anything. I really hope that says more about the show than it does about me!

The core story was a good one though, a modern day school for witches and the politics within their ranks. Jessica Lange once again gets a juicy part to play as the current leader whose power will desert her as her successor is revealed. The various teenage witches meanwhile are varyingly powerful, ambitious, out of control and bitchy, although at time they feel a little too one dimensional. Sarah Paulson’s character sits in the middle and is probably the most interesting and ‘normal’ of the lot of them, which sadly does leave her feeling a little plain in comparison.

I enjoyed the dozen or so episodes, but that was about it. While the first season felt like it was putting a fresh spin on traditional horror tropes and bringing them to a new audience via television, this just felt… disposable. It just didn’t seem to have the depth that the first season had which left me wanting to re-view it to follow through all the connections and implications. But as I said at the beginning, the beauty of the format is that each season is a chance to start again, so we’ll see what comes our way next year.

Dracula: Pilot Review

Dracula comes to London at the turn of the last century. By day he is a flamboyant American entrepreneur, by night he’s on a quest to take down a secret society.

My instinctive response to the announcement of a series about Dracula was a bored sigh. I’m not the biggest horror fan in the world and find that it tends to be derivative at the best of times (skipping creativity in favour of rehashing old themes and tropes that weren’t necessarily that great even when they were original) and making a series about not only vampires but The Vampire felt rather doomed from the start. But, there was a smidgeon of hope for originality in the setting and embracing the steampunk potential of the turn of the century.

So after watching the pilot, what do I think? To be honest I’ve got no idea. I’m not sure the show itself really knows what to think. This is not going to be one of my most coherent reviews.

On one hand it’s a bright and colourful romp. All the characters bordering on caricatures, plot bordering on ridiculous and as a whole it borders on pantomime. In tone it most reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes films, with Jonathon Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) channelling Robert Downey Jnr’s energy to play his ‘cover’ of an American entrepreneur bringing technology and charisma to stuffy British society. It’s thoroughly entertaining to watch his smug outmanoeuvring of the various lords and ladies.

On the other hand however, he’s far less interesting and engaging as the predictably dark and broody vampire. He’s not so much a complex character as a completely schizophrenic one with one half presenting interesting questions about motivations and morale standing, the other an outright murderer who slaughters not just those that have wronged him, but random women off the street as well. While the cautious friendship with journalist JOnathon Harker is intriguing on both sides, the long lingering looks at Mina Murry, the reincarnation (?) of his dead wife was considerably more tedious.

Overall the episode is a mess, dozens of clumsy questions raised and characters hinting at secrets and plans. But rather than being intrigued at how it would all fit together, the lack of elegance just left me convinced that the writers themselves were as in the dark as the audience and that they’d left things unsaid so they could work out rationales at a later date. It was vague on so many things it just felt uncertain rather than mysterious – is it an alternate history, how much ‘magic’ is there, who are the good guys? It felt like the writers were basically throwing everything at the audience and seeing what stuck.

I commented on the trailer that I was confused how something could look so expensive and so cheap all at the same time, and I remain confused (and a bit impressed). The sets, locations and costumes are all stunning, but the cast and writing all felt a little C-list. The anachronisms came so thick and fast that by half way through I was doubting whether anything was accurate and was more tempted to spend my time on wikipedia checking everything than I was watching the show. It is a slightly odd production, a joint UK/US series of 10 episodes, broadcast on NBC in the US, Sky Living in the UK and filmed in Bulgaria. It is from the head of the creator of the weird and wonderful Carnivale, but I don’t know whether this is an attempt to be more mainstream, or it’s just been dumbed down, but Dracula really didn’t draw me in the way that Carnivale did.

I was entertained watching it, but that was at least partly because I was watching it with someone else who would join me in mocking it. I think I might stick with it a little longer just because I’m so confused by it. That’s really not a very good recommendation for anyone else to watch it, but I guess it’s not an outright suggestion to avoid it either. There – now you’re as confused about it as I am!

Sleepy Hollow: Pilot Review

Ichabod Crane died during the civil war, succumbing to wounds caused by a mysterious figure on horseback whose head Crane detached. A couple of centuries later he wakes up in modern day America, in a small town which appears to have a problem with a headless guy on a horse murdering local residents. Crane partners up with a local cop to work out what’s going, while engaging in familiar buddy cop tropes.

This is a relatively high profile new series, which had already received some strong reviews and after airing just 3 episodes it’s not only been picked up for the full season, but renewed for a second! But despite all that I wasn’t particularly excited by the idea of this going in. The cast was completely unknown to me and the blurb just sounded quite tired, I felt I could probably map out most of the series’ plot and jokes without any particular thought.

After watching it, I can’t say I’d count myself as that much more enthusiastic, but I have to acknowledge that it’s a very solid offering. The plot remains as predictable as expected with the predictable jokes from the man out of time about the number of Starbucks, women wearing trousers, the emancipation of slaves and confused looks about just about everything. The mythical elements trundled along like a rerun of an episode of Buffy or Supernatural and the police elements plodded on like… well I can’t actually think what it was specifically like, but it certainly felt very familiar. In fact it’s just one of those shows that feels endlessly familiar, even if you can’t quite place your finger on what exactly it is that’s triggering that.

BUT I actually kind of enjoyed the pilot. While the unknown-ness of the cast doesn’t help generate buzz for the show, it did mean that they were very fresh. I liked them. They didn’t do anything particularly astonishing or anything, but they managed to give some heart and soul to the characters, and immediately established an entertaining partnership. They’d certainly benefit from some stronger supporting characters (the endlessly shouty and disapproving Captain can feel free to go away), but as a leading team, these two have potential.

Overall, the pilot was nothing special beyond the fact that it didn’t fall over its own feet, a rarer achievement than we might hope. Having dropped Once Upon a Time from my watch list, this might actually fill the “amiable entertainment” slot. This strikes me as the kind of show that thanks to its relatively low ambition, actually has the potential to be pleasingly successful.