Films in Aug and Sept 2022

I’ve had a fair amount of life stuff going on recently which means I’m very behind on writing up reviews, but I’ve also not been watching much, so at least it matches.

See How They Run
There’s a kind of sub-sub-genre that could be vaguely described as Agatha Christie murder mysteries but not taken seriously, but not a completely stupid parody, so still a proper murder mystery, just emphasising the slightly ridiculous characters. Think Knives Out. See How They Run is more directly connected to Agatha Christie as it’s set around the early days of the Mouse Trap (it doesn’t spoil the show, and you don’t have to have seen it, but there are a couple of jokes you may miss). I really enjoyed the whole thing, the mystery was solid, the characters large but believable, and I chuckled fairly consistently. I really wish there were more films like this, just easy going solid entertainment. 8 / 10

Do Revenge
I really enjoyed this! It’s a high school spin on Strangers on a Train and knowingly plays up to all the tropes of high school movies – ‘kids’ blatantly played by 20-somethings, with too much money, no schoolwork, overworked cliches and overblown relationships. There isn’t an ounce of realism in this film and it was therefore a brilliant bit of escapism. The actors are all charismatic and utterly believable playing preposterous characters; the twists of the plot are both predictable and ridiculous and it’s a riot of colour and energy. Exactly what I needed. 8 / 10

Coincidentally I read Persuasion earlier this year and given that I usually hate this kind of book, gave this one the dubious positive review of being “the best one I’ve read” with a “quite likeable” lead character. I therefore went into the film tentatively, particularly given that it seemed to be getting terrible reviews, but I actually rather liked it! It didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought the breaking of the 4th wall and Dakota Johnson’s performance was actually really fitting for the book and brought a nice energy to the whole thing. There were a few too many characters to keep track of (the same problem I had with the book), but the more comic characters were played beautifully. 8 / 10

There’s quite a clever idea behind this film – the toy Buzz Lightyear is tie-in merchandise to a film, and this is that film. I like the meta-ness of that. I also loved the trailer, set to David Bowie and absolutely beautiful. Sometimes Pixar manages to pull off that balance (Inside Out, Wall-e), but here the two ideas just fight each other. On one hand you’ve got a kids’ film with an overblown (and frankly annoying) lead character, a robot cat and band of misfits. On the other hand you’ve got a complicated plot relying on understanding Special Relativity and ethical dilemas about when you should fight a situation, and when you should make the best of it. the film does look absolutely beautiful, but as a whole, it just didn’t work. 5 / 10

A former soldier with a lot of stuff going on is forced into a road trip with a former military service dog who also has a lot of stuff going on. It’s not exactly challenging to guess where this story will go and it doesn’t even try to subvert the genre in the slightest. But this sort of story works for a reason, and so long as you’ve got a charismatic lead (Channing Tatum – tick) and an excellent dog (tick) then you’ve got a recipe for success. Plenty of humour, plenty of emotion. Big tick. 7 / 10

This is a terrible film. If not for some of the names attached (Roland Emmerich, Halle Berry) and the scale of the budget and effects, you would assume it was knocked together in a basement somewhere. The plot makes very little sense even if you can ignore the horrifically bad science, the script is clunky and the acting hammy. It is at least pretty to look at, but it completely fails to capture any of the energy or entertainment of Independence Day and it makes even Day After Tomorrow look like a masterpiece. The only thing it has going for it is that it’s not offensive in any way except for the waste of some money and a small amount of talent. 4 / 10

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
I don’t know why I decided to give this film a second try, maybe because the concept of making a sort of superhero team out a random collection of literary characters in a steam punk setting is so good. But the reality is a mess. The script is absolutely dire, a messy plot, inconsistent characters and just terrible dialogue. The look of it is also a problem because everything is so dark it’s hard to understand what’s going on, and to be honest just not worth the effort. An absolute waste. 4 / 10

The Wind
I feel like I should write something really carefully considered about this film, but I just can’t seem to be bothered. It’s supposed to be a horror film, and it’s relying on the unsettling nature of the utterly desolate setting of the edges of America in the late 1800’s, a pair of couples trying to make their way surrounded by frankly nothing. But within about 10 minutes my attention wandered and I disengaged. The cinematography was beautiful and maybe in a cinema would have been enough, but the story and characters were fairly unremarkable, and the jumping timeline kind of ruined any sense of surprise. It’s not terrible, and at least it’s under 90mins, but it could probably have been under an hour and not lost 6 / 10

Sister Act
A thoroughly entertaining and feel good film. Yeah, it’s a bit dated now and there are plenty of daft moments, but when I stumbled across it on television I still found myself laughing, smiling, and singing along. The only thing that surprised me was that it was actually a bit light on the songs, particularly as most of them get reprised. 7 / 10

There’s absolutely no reason this film shouldn’t have been great, it had a massive budget, an excellent cast, talented crew and the kind of creative freedom only a name that Ridley Scott can bring; it had “how can it possibly fail?” written all over it.
The answer is apparently that it can fail through sheer laziness on the script writers parts. The story made no sense! Plot holes you could drive moons through, astronomically stupid characters, bludgeoning the ‘suspension of disbelief’ barriers until they break and a casual disregard for science, health and safety, or common sense that is just offensive. Maybe they forgot the basics while they were droning on with “where do we all come from” mystycism. Alien was just about some believable people trying to survive and that was why it was tense and engaging, idiots trying to find the answers to life’s eternal questions… who cares.
If you can’t make the plot work without characters making stupid and random decisions, the plot doesn’t work. If you insist on your characters being stupid and random, then I’m not going to care when they get splattered, in fact I’ll likely give a little cheer. Oh and insisting on putting female characters in their underwear (and utterly impractical underwear at that) isn’t going to help your case either.
The only positive thing I will say for the film is that the cast did their best with awful material. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender were superb, Idris Elba was charming (with the exception of his meandering accent) and Charlize Theron took her idiotic character and made her interesting for a little while. The cast deserved better. As did the viewer. 5 / 10

Alien: Covenant
Given how utterly awful I found Alien Prometheus, I didn’t have high hopes for Covenant, and yet somehow I think they actually managed to make something worse. Just like Prometheus, we’ve got an incoherent plot, stupid characters and interminable mysticism and talking, when all I really wanted was running and screaming. There’s also way too many characters to keep track of, a lot of stuff happening in dark uninteresting caves and a slightly under-whelming hero. The only positive is that there were a lot less gratuitous underwear shots, so at least it only insulted my intelligence not my morals. 5 / 10

Birds of Prey
This was exactly what it needed to be and should be – bright, exciting, engaging and with just enough substance to it to raise it above disposable fluff. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is mesmerising, she may seem bonkers, but she’s actually seeing things possibly more clearly than anyone else. The world she lives in is insane and she’s just reacting accordingly. The rest of the Birds of Prey can’t quite find the space to shine for most of the film, which is a little disappointing as for most of the film any scene without Harley in it is just a little duller and starts to lag. In the unchallenging competition of the DC cinematic universe, this is the first one that hasn’t disappointed me. 8 / 10


Books in June 2020

Five books this month! That’s mostly thanks to a few incredibly lazy days just sitting in the garden reading, and also a couple of really entertaining reads. Even the couple that weren’t necessarily very good were diverting enough to keep me settled in my deckchair, and Agrappina has gone straight to the top of my favourite books of the year and made a pretty high entry on my top non-fiction books ever.

agrippinaEmma Southon – Agrippina
The period of the first few emperors of Rome is absolutely fascinating, and has been studied, written about, mythologised and dramatised pretty much ever since it happened. It’s a transformative period for a massive civilisation that ripples through history today; but it also plays out like a spectacular melodrama with endless plotting, scandals, betrayals and murders. However as Southon points out throughout this book, the lure of a good story has frequently overpowered what we today would consider ‘good history’. With very few direct primary sources (even the Roman writers we’d probably think of as primary sources were often writing hundreds of years after events) everything is suspicious.
This is particularly true of a person like Agrappina. A woman in a completely male world. Historians throughout history have interpreted her as manipulative, self-serving and power-mad, but Southon brings a fresh approach questioning absolutely everything, going back to the sources and considering the agendas of the writers. These were people to whom the idea of a woman looking out for herself was horrifying, whereas Agrappina’s action’s take on a rather different spin when you consider that most of her family had been exiled and/or murdered, including young children who’s only crime was inconvenient location in the family tree. I’m not going to call it a ‘feminist’ take, because that’s incredibly patronising, it’s a ‘fair’ take, respectful of the context and acknowledging the many things that just can’t be known.
The biggest thing I can praise about the book though is that the author’s voice is loud, proud and HILARIOUS. There is no dry academic language here, she grumbles about confusing naming practices, swears about sources, calls out respected historians for their double standards, she makes off hand pop culture references and freely admits when she isn’t sure of something. I absolutely loved spending time in her company and I came away informed, intrigued, challenged and hugely entertained. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

venetian gothicPhilip Gwynne Jones – Venetian Gothic
Another very solid thriller from Philip Gwynne Jones. The mystery element is maybe not as strong as some other writers, but it’s more than made up for by the incredibly rich description of Venice, not as a glamourised romantic vision, but as a real place where people live. The central characters are also well formed with flaws and eccentricities alongside their charms. This is not a series that will ever set the world alight, but they are good fun reads and a lot less disposable than the average thriller. And they really make me want to visit Venice again.

early riserJasper Fforde – Early Riser
I was just reading back through my reviews of previous Jasper Fforde books and I’ve been pretty critical of him in the past, in a way that makes me wonder why I keep picking his books up. There’s a four year gap in his bibliography before this book was published, and he’s come back in better form than ever. Early Riser hung together better than I think any of his other novels have. There’s a characteristically weird world, but this one feels completely real, it’s fully formed and makes sense (in a nonsense kind of way). Also the plot is smoothly developed through the book, with twists and turns on a coherent journey and a cast of characters that are entertaining and curious. I was pretty gripped through the whole thing and ended up completely satisfied.

terra twoTemi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra-Two
I’m afraid that I don’t think this is a very good book. On a surface level it’s a solid page turner with a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace, diverse characters and lots going on. But unfortunately anything beyond the very superficial starts to fall apart. The story revolves around a group of astronauts sent on a 20+ year mission to another planet. OK, solid idea, but the details are all ridiculous. 6 of the crew are teenagers who’ve gone through years of highly accelerated training that seems to have completely overlooked even the most basic psychology and mental health considerations leaving the whole set up completely ridiculous. I kept suspending more and more of my disbelief and switching my brain off until there was almost nothing left. I’ve got nothing against a book that’s dumb and fun, but this book isn’t presenting that way, it’s trying to be full on science fiction, and it’s sadly just not good enough.

henri pickDavid Foenkinos – The Mystery of Henri Pick
Walter Presents is a collection hosted by Channel 4 which curates the best in international television, and this is the first in a book series trying to reach a larger audience for books not originally written in English. Despite my best intentions, I’ve never actually watched anything on Walter Presents, but this book caught my eye. It’s by a French author and from my incredibly limited experience of French cinema I’d say it certainly feels French. Despite being entirely based in the real world, there’s a slightly fantastical feel to the story.
From a plot point of view, nothing much happens – an abandoned book is found and turns out to be a masterpiece. We then drop in with various characters who are connected to the story, meandering through their connections and how the publication of the book slightly changes their lives. It’s a book that encourages words like “gentle”, “charming” and the ultimate in faint praise -“nice”. It’s engaging enough while reading, but not impactful enough to really linger. The only thing I will say is that I would recommend not reading the epilogue, it felt like the author slightly chickened out of deciding which end to have and included an alternate one that would have been a much darker story than the one the rest of the book tells. That was a real disappointment right at the very end.

Films in April

I’m still finding it a bit difficult to pick films that I want to watch at the moment, generally I’m looking for things that are engaging enough to distract from the world, but not too challenging or melancholy. Although every now and then I embrace the drama and seek out a horror film to completely overwhelm my brain. The list below are almost exclusively older films that are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime or occasionally on television; the only “new release” is the first film which premiered on Netflix so jumps to the top of the list, even though it was hardly a ‘big’ name.

The Willoughbys (Netflix)
A perfectly fine animation, but it felt like it could have been something a bit more impressive. The story is solid, the animation is lovely with an original style and creativity and the voice work very good. I think my disappointment was that it wasn’t quite dark enough. It has some fairly dark ideas that reminded me of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket or Tim Burton, but it just doesn’t quite follow through. Maybe it’s because the visuals are so colourful that it instinctively feels less creepy. It’s solidly entertaining, and maybe it’s just me and others will enjoy it a lot more, but it just seemed not quite all there to me. 7/10

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Amazon)
An absolute classic of a film, a defining moment for the Spy genre. It’s not flashy secret agents with guns and car chases, but quiet, slow and thoughtful. The story is beautifully crafted so I always thought I knew what was happening, but also had an element of suspicion that meant I was never completely sure. My uncertainty and nervousness mirrored the paranoia of the characters and worked perfectly to bring a sense of unease to the film. The way the story eventually unwound was immensely satisfying. 9/10

Death on the Nile (TV)
Agatha Christie is the rightful queen of the murder mystery and this is one of her absolute best stories, beautifully constructed with twists and turns. Here it is brought to life beautifully; some of the best character actors around at the time bring the drama and the cheesiness at all the right points. The icing on the cake are the stunning locations of Egypt. 8/10

Three Identical Strangers (Netflix)
The documentary starts with a seemingly miraculous story, a boy going to college only to find that everyone seems to recognise him, and the rapid discovery that he’s got a twin brother who he never knew about, split up when they were adopted and neither family knowing the other. Then a third brother is found. That story in itself is incredible enough to make a decent film, but the story continues to develop, as the clickbait headline would go “in ways you’ll never believe” and I’ll not spoil. The events in this film are absolutely incredible, everyone on screen says they wouldn’t believe it if they hadn’t lived it. The film makers do a very solid job unraveling the story, always giving the individuals time and space to express how they felt and the very human impact that these sensational events had. It’s a shocking story that had a real impact on me. 8 / 10

Operation Petticoat (Amazon)
A Cary Grant classic! Pink submarines, women, goats, babies, bombs and thieves all conspiring to make Grant cranky. The combination of Tony Curtis and Cary Grant is an hilarious one, one never stops talking and the other one doesn’t need to say a word. It’s not exactly aged perfectly with a fair amount of leering at the women, but actually it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been and the women do a good job standing up for themselves. One of my favourite films when I was a kid and still absolutely hilarious. 8 / 10

Bumblebee (TV)
I am rather amazed to say, I really enjoyed this Tranformers film. I haven’t seen the most recent ones I don’t think, I don’t even really know how many of them there have been, but I’d heard suggestions that as a more standalone film (and a prequel I think) this one was something different. It felt like it was harking back to solid old tropes of aliens/monsters befriending young people who help keep them secret and safe. Bumblebee the character is beautifully created to be part child, part scary fighter; the complicated animation really communicates his feelings even when he has no voice, I felt real sympathy and joy with him at times. Hailee Steinfeld is an excellent lead, also delivering charm and emotional punches, creating chemistry with the animation. I even liked the way the 80’s period setting was used, the pop culture references making me laugh rather than cringe. The script is nicely knowing about the cliches they’re playing (“They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?”). Okay, so the plot is a bit predictable and the emotions laid on too thick at times, but for a piece of family entertainment, it really delivers. 8 / 10

The Current War (Amazon)
Once upon a time, I studied the history of science, and this film is exactly the type of story that got me interested in the subject. On the surface the idea of a film about whether AC or DC electricity would ‘win’ is really not that exciting sounding. But what this film captures is the complex components of that decision, the combination of all the personal, political and sociological issues that play out along the actual science. One of the things they teach you about studying history is that it’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking of people as heroes and villains, even people who are pushing for a theory that we now know is wrong aren’t (usually) villains and this film really shows that. Both Edison and Westinghouse demonstrate greatness and underhandedness, both have beliefs, passions, curiosity and ambition, and the film follows them as they wax and wane. On top of a fascinating story being told very well, the film is beautifully shot and there are some very well placed stylistic elements that really stood out. I wasn’t expecting much from this film and I was very pleasantly surprised. 8 / 10

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe. 8 / 10

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over. 8 / 10

Good Night, and Good Luck (DVD)
This is a strangely intimate feeling film considering the depth of the history it’s covering, journalists finally standing up against the bully that was Senator McCarthy. Most of the story is told through discussions in the newsroom, and the remainder is told through historical clips of McCarthy and the hearings. I was a bit skeptical of the black and white at first, but I think it actually helped focus on the words and imbue the whole film with a sense of history (I guess having black and white clips in a colour film wouldn’t have worked). David Strathairn isn’t a well known actor but he’s perfect as Edward Murrow and George Clooney brings his charm and integrity to Fred Friendly. An entertaining film, and a fascinating insight. The film’s plot/history was well crafted and the use of period footage was very powerful. It’s not often I say this but I think the film could actually have been a little longer (run time 93minutes) to explain things a little more. A fascinating film with some bold choices in direction, most of which work but some of which are just plain irritating. 8 / 10

Filmed in Supermarionation (Amazon)
I grew up with several of Gerry Anderson’s series, and still think that Thunderbirds is one of the best concepts for a TV series there has been (although not necessarily the best delivered). This is a very un-flashy documentary that would be very at home on Sunday evening TV, but does fit the history of the production company that was run by a small group of people in glamorous locations like Slough. It’s a straightforward chronologically told story with plenty of clips of the series, behind the scenes footage, pieces to camera by the people that were there and even a group of the original teams going back to where they used to work. It’s very charming, and a fascinating story for anyone that has a fondness for these series, or an interest in the history of television. I could have lived without the new snippets of the puppets as if they were part of the documentary, that was just too cheesy. 7 / 10

Animals (Amazon)
I think to really appreciate this film you need to connect to the characters, to feel some kind of familiarity to some part of them, and I just didn’t feel that. I don’t think that’s because the film wasn’t good, I think the characters were well written and performed and I’m sure a lot of people will really connect to them, it’s just that the passions that drove them were ones that don’t really speak to me. So I felt myself a bit frustrated and bored of them, rather than sympathetic. Even without that connection though there were still moments that did speak to me, enough that I could see the talent behind the film. It just wasn’t for me. 7 / 10

Coyote Ugly (DVD)
A fun enough film with a great soundtrack and a tolerable enough plot in between. The Coyote Ugly bar is an interesting idea and it’s a shame it wasn’t in more of the film. Some likeable performances by a collection of pretty unremarkable actresses, although the characters are pretty one dimensional. 7 / 10

Magic Mike (DVD)
I’m a sucker for any of these films, any of those ‘struggling artist finds a home and a purpose by performing’, it’s just they’re usually about girls. And not usually about stripping. But my fondness carried through and I loved Magic Mike. The way the story turns some elements on its head brings freshness to the genre (the new guy isn’t the hero, it’s the older teacher that gets the better story) and the insight into the practical business of stripping is fascinating. For all that there’s actually a very strong story and interesting characters though, they also don’t shy away from the stripping, but if you’re just watching for that, I think you’re missing the true strengths of the film. Well, some of them anyway. 7 / 10

Children of the Corn (Amazon)
A classic of the horror genre that flip flops a bit between ideas and scenes that are still genuinely creepy, and ones that have dated very badly and just seem funny now. The story still holds up as a concept, murderous children are alwasy going to be unsettling. Given it was made in 1984, it’s not that surprising that it looks a little rubbish now, incredibly low quality effects and weirdly non-creepy looking deserted streets. I do wonder if the voice of Isaac was ever anything other than funny. 7 / 10

21 Bridges (Amazon)
This is a pretty good brainless action film that’s got a bit more depth to it than usual. Unfortunately I think the film is presenting itself as a smart thriller and there were two problems with that. There is too much reliance on suspension of disbelief that is normally used for mindless action films. The main characters lead charmed lives where every shot they take hits their target, but they walk unharmed through hails of bullets unscratched. It just didn’t feel like the villains had the level of skill to create the carnage and chaos they did, they’re presented as not much more than thugs for hire and yet they take down half a dozen cops with relative ease. The second problem is that I felt it was a bit of a waste of the premise. Shutting down the island of Manhattan is a great dramatic moment (and an opportunity for a rousing speech from Chadwick Boseman) but it didn’t feel like it actually played a huge part of the story. I mean Manhattan is huge, surely two guys could have hidden and waited it out? It didn’t really feel like it added anything to the film at all. So if you go in expecting a smart thriller I think you’ll be disappointed. But as an action film with some solid character work and performances, it’s pretty entertaining. 6 / 10

Chicken Run (Amazon)
This isn’t as stand out as many of Aardman’s other movies, it doesn’t feel as rich or detailed as something like Pirates an Adventure with Scientists, and it doesn’t have as much charm as Wallace and Grommit. But it is still entertaining, really playing up the ideas of The Great Escape and delivering them in chicken form. It’s funny and charming, and beautiful to look at. However there’s a big problem with the concept that can never really be overcome. It’s a children’s film about a chicken farm. There’s an early scene of a chicken being killed for the kitchen table and the other chickens being aware of that fate, which doesn’t quite blend with the quirky adventure tone of the rest of the film, and I certainly wouldn’t feel like explaining what’s happening to any younger children. 6 / 10

Booksmart (Amazon)
There was a lot about this film that I was impressed by. It felt like a very current entry to the coming of age genre, with a mixture of genders and sexuality that would have been remarkable a few years ago but here is just accepted as normal. But it still has all the usual elements of a coming of age film, and I’m not a big fan of those. There’s a lot of cringing humour, characters making fools of themselves, disasters that can be seen coming from a mile off. Many of the characters are quite annoying a lot of the time, which does make their moments of nice-ness a lot more impactful, but for the most part they’re just not fun to spend time with. I respect this film a lot, but I didn’t particularly like it. 6 / 10

Hustlers (Amazon)
I’d been disappointed to miss this film at the cinema and was excited to see it appear on Amazon Prime, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the expectations. I was immediately on edge with the level of nudity and sexualisation in the opening scenes. I’m not being a prude about it, but it felt exploitative rather than narrative, the full pole dance routine Jennifer Lopez does wasn’t about establishing her character, motivation or backstory, it was just about JLo in a skimpy outfit doing a pole dance. I’m not sure the film ever came back from that. There were plenty of opportunities for the film to be a proper drama, looking at the deeper stories of the women and how they felt, what they wanted and why their stories played out that way, but it never felt like it got beyond the tight dresses, leering and intrusive cameras and one dimensional characters. As a caper movie with strippers, it wasn’t un-entertaining, but I thought it was going to be more than that. 6 / 10

Diego Maradona (TV)
After Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentaries Senna and Amy, I had high hopes that he could bring the same level of insight to the world of football and someone I knew of only because of the ‘hand of god’ cheating. Sadly, I was disappointed. Not just disappointed but bored and frustrated. The film focuses on his time playing in Italy and I never felt like I understood where he came from, the interviews and voiceovers said stuff, but I never felt like we saw evidence to support anything. I didn’t get an understanding of how his football playing was special and I never understood the reactions of the fans and people around him. On top of that much of the footage was really dated and almost the whole thing was subtitled so as my attention wavered I completely lost track. I just don’t think this was anywhere near as good a piece of work as Kapadia’s previous works. 5 / 10

Shutter Island (Netflix)
A thriller without the thrills, and mystery without much mystery. The period setting is intriguing and beautifully created, but the film as a whole was a bit too much style over substance. It’s trying to present itself as gritty and grounded but there are so many obviously daft plot elements that it’s easy to see that there’s more going on. That’s made even clearly by the horrific soundtrack that tramples over any remaining subtlety, literally honking a horn every time something weird happens. 5 / 10

Van Helsing (DVD)
What on earth was that? I didn’t have high expectations of it, but I figured it had Hugh Jackman so how bad could it be? The answer is that it could be really really bad. I don’t know whether they were aiming for serious and made it bad, or they were aiming for funny and forgot to put the jokes in, but either way it completely missed the mark. Most of the actors seemed equally unsure what sort of film they were in because I know most of them can do a lot better, although unfortunately there were also some actors that clearly would not have been able to deliver a more nuanced performance even if the script had provided the material. Even the special effects were clunky and painful. The whole film was utterly without redemption. 4 / 10

Happy Valley: Season 2

happy_valleyI absolutely loved the first series of Happy Valley. ‘Loved’ doesn’t seem like it should be the right word for something that was really astonishingly bleak at times but through truly incredible writing and acting, the brutal subject matter became just a catalyst for a fascinating look at normal people. I was dubious though whether that could work in a second season. Part of the success of the series was the reality of life in a relatively small UK town and that the kind of events portrayed just didn’t usually happen there. Could it work a second time? Would the reality be broken?

I think the answer is that it does break the series a little bit. But that doesn’t matter, because just as the first season wasn’t really about the crimes themselves, neither is the second. It’s still about the people involved, what drives them, what happens to them, how do they react, and what does that do to the people around them.

Sarah Lancashire remains the heart of the piece, continuing to establish herself as one of the absolute queens of the small screen. She is utterly believable, so very human. Moving effortlessly from humour to tragedy just like real people do. The ensemble cast around her is mostly equally stunning. Each character from the first season growing a bit more, and the new characters this season stepping right into the middle of things. Many of the names and faces are familiar from other UK shows, but previous roles soon fade away. There are unfortunately a couple of roles that feel a little over the top and clumsy at times, most notably the painfully simpering Frances who had a strange accent that never quite settled with me.

Happy Valley is one of the best television shows on at the moment, on either side of the ocean. It’s hard and brutal, but not an episode goes by that doesn’t also make me laugh, smile and often well up a bit too. It may be getting more improbable, but even if the whole of the next season was about sheep rustling, I’d watch it in a heartbeat.

The Wire: Seasons 1 and 2

The WireWay back in 2008, I was already late to the party in watching the Wire and then, when I’d eventually turned up, I had the nerve to suggest that it wasn’t that great a party anyway!

I can appreciate the quality of this show, but I didn’t really get into it. It’s a show that really has to be watched as a season rather than individual episodes, and I took longer than I usually would to watch 13 episodes. This meant I continually lost track of who was who and what was going on. Gritty realism is good, but unfortunately an element of that realism is a lack of clarity in dialogue and recapping what’s happening. Maybe I was just too sleepy and not paying attention. I did really enjoy the characters (or at least those I could tell apart). It was also surprisingly funny, including some real laugh out loud scenes and lines. I think I’ll try to revisit this series at a later date so I can appreciate it more.

It’s taken me SEVEN YEARS but I finally got round to that revisit when I spotted it as a box set on Sky. I re-watched the first season and then went straight into the second, so I’ll sort of review both alongside each other.

This time I did watch it more condensed, working my way through both seasons in a few weeks. I also had a tendency to not worry about watching a whole episode, frequently stopping in the middle and coming back to then watch another couple of hours the next night. This approach seemed worked a lot better to keep momentum going, the seasons are definitely more like very long films then episodic television.

It also helped me keep track of characters and the intricate networks of relationships and structures that made up criminal and police teams alike. But, it was still not 100% successful. In both seasons I struggled to keep track of the players in each criminal network, often not knowing if I was supposed to recognise someone or should have been making connections myself. I did find though that if I didn’t worry about it and just let it all sort of wash together, it seemed to be ok.

I was a bit unsure about the second season which introduced the entirely new story around the docks on top of the leftover elements of the drugs business from season 1. It felt like there were too many different threads, particularly given that most of the police team were divided up too, and I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be focussing on. It took almost half the season for me to really settle into it and even then the occasional swing of focus back to Stringer Bell and his enterprise felt like a distraction that undermined the impact of the ‘main’ storyline.

I’m enjoying watching the series, and do find myself drawn into coming back to it and watching more at the detriment to other current series that are backing up. The humour that runs through it is very well done and when any of the characters actually gets a bit of time they’re all entertaining and interesting. But I don’t quite see why it’s held up in such hallowed tones. I guess at the time it was something very different, but now, maybe it’s just not as outstanding thanks to the quality that it encouraged in others.

Grey’s Anatomy: Season 11

Grey's AnatomyThe show that just keeps going. Of the original interns, only Meredith and Alex are left, of the original ‘grown ups’ only Bailey and Webber (who will forever be The Chief). Only four of the original cast that made me fall in love with the show are still there by the end of this season. The cast has seen some other great characters come and go over the years, but even someone like Callie who has been there since season 2 feels like something of an interloper. So when this season we had to adjust to the absence of Christina and then say goodbye to Derek the show should have suffered.

But it didn’t. Watching Meredith adjust to being without Christina and watching her relationships with other characters grow to compensate was absolutely fascinating. I particularly love her relationship with Alex. Evil Spawn has come a long way and yet is still true to the somewhat obnoxious character he was on day one. He and Meredith *get* each other like no one else really does, probably not even Derek or Jo. Watching him become ‘her person’ was so satisfying.

Then with the loss of Derek, Meredith has to grow all over again. I have never been a fan of Derek and am not particularly sorry to see him go. As Christina said, he may be dreamy (although he doesn’t actually do anything for me), but Meredith is the sun. It’s more interesting to see the effect he has on her than it is to watch any of his self-important preenings. The fact that he went out in such a stupid way (doing a 3 point turn on a blind bend and pausing to find his phone, I mean, come on) was quite fitting I thought.

While Rhimes may not be particularly great at writing good leading men (President Grant on Scandal is even worse) she excels at relationships. There were 14 main characters on the show this year and just about every connection had depth, all completely grounded and aware of the complicated shared histories. Every time there’s a reference to an event in a previous season I give a little cheer; the connections of love, betrayal, frustration and forgiveness are all there and all track through.

Fundamentally this is a soap. So the plots have to occasionally be ridiculous. There have to be so many life events to drive narratives that it can become repetitive. There are little tricks used to change things up, the turnover of characters helps there, as do things like accelerating timelines so we don’t have to spend a dozen episodes watching people slowly mourn. The medical cases are pretty daft, the emotional manipulation pretty blatant and the number of workplace romances likely to drive any HR department to drink. But it doesn’t matter. I love it. I love these characters (the ones that are present and the ones that have gone) and I can’t wait to see what ridiculous things are thrown at them next.

The Upfronts 2014: Syfy

syfyWhat’s Dead
Warehouse 13’s final season concluded a little while ago with the same level of insanity and entertainment that it’s had for five seasons. The US version of Being Human managed four seasons (one less than the UK), but thanks to longer seasons it was actually 15 episodes longer.

What’s Returning
defianceHaven and Lost Girl will both return for fifth seasons later this year, Continuum is currently in the middle of its third season and Defiance will return in June for its second season. The truly awful Helix has somehow got a renewal for a second season next year and Something called Bitten that I’ve no recollection of hearing about but wasn’t surprised to find out is about werewolves, will also return for a second season.

What’s New
Ascension (trailer, November): It’s a spaceship!!! A six hour “event”. 50 years ago the spaceship Ascension, carrying hundreds of people set off to populate a new world, now half way there a murder causes everyone to question their true mission. Sounds and looks intriguing.

Dominion (trailer June): Set 25 years after the film Legion, it’s a war between angels and humans. The trailer needs considerably better actors. Also what’s with the dramatic single word names? Defiance, Ascension, Dominion…

There are also mentions of a new version of Blake’s 7 (yeah, believe that one when I see it!) and series based on the films Unbreakable (this year) and 12 Monkeys (Jan 2015).

The Upfronts 2014: AMC

amcWhat’s Dead
Low Winter Sun set after just one season without much fanfare as it arrived or departed. Breaking Bad finished up back in September, just creeping its way into eligibility for this year’s award season. Mad Men is dawdling its way towards a conclusion, they’re splitting season 7 into two chunks, the first half is just wrapping up, while the second half will arrive the same time next year.

What’s Returning
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead shows no sign of slowing and has surprisingly not run out of either characters or ammunition yet, season five will start in October. Hell on Wheels will start its fourth season later this year. The American version of The Killing (Forbrydelsen) was cancelled after its third season (after also being cancelling after the second season), but it’s been picked up by Netflix for a fourth season. It’s seems the show just won’t die.

What’s New
Turn (Trailer, already airing): set during the American Revolutionary War, looking at the unlikely group of New York farmers who spied on the British for General Washington. I’m not sure of the international appeal of this story and the trailer looked utterly rubbish.

There are lots of pilots listed as being under consideration or even ordered, but I wouldn’t really put money on which, if any would make it to air (although the Walking Dead spin-off would seem the safest bet). A couple of note-worthy ones:
Preacher: based on the supernatural comic series about a small town Preacher in Texas who’s possessed by the offspring of an angel and a demon. He then sets off across the US trying to find God and understand his powers. I think Supernatural did this plot already.
Area 51 (a “contemporary conspiracy thriller revealing the true story behind the infamous Area 51”, created by Chris Carter of The X Files),
The Sparrow based on Mary Doria Russell’s incredible book, but written and produced by the man who brought you The River and Paranormal Activity 2. No. Just NO!

The Upfronts 2014: Showtime

showtimeWhat’s Dead
Only one show ending on Showtime this year, Californication is just finishing up its seventh and final season

What’s Returning
Shameless and finished its fourth season a couple of months ago and will be back next year for a fifth. Homeland will return later this year for a fourth season, if anyone still actually cares. Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex will both be back very soon for their second seasons. Nurse Jackie will be back next year for its seventh season. Episodes, House of Lies and Web Therapy have all been renewed for fourth seasons, but air dates seem a little vague.

What’s New
Penny Dreadful (trailer, already started): Clearly inspired by American Horror Story, Showtime brings some pretty creepy, gruesome and scary stuff to the screen, drawing from existing characters from 19th Century literature such as Dorian Gray, Dracula and Frankenstein. It’s already a few episodes in and started in the UK on Sky Atlantic (who co-produced the show) last week.

The Affair (no air date): The impacts of an affair. Not much of a plot but a stunning cast – Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson.

Happyish – I would imagine is on hold, it’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman comedy series that he was working on when he died.


The Upfronts 2014: HBO

hboWhat’s Dead
HBO is pretty good about giving its shows a season’s notice of cancellation/retirement so several shows are both dead, but returning. True Blood’s upcoming 7th Season and Boardwalk Empire’s 5th Season will both be their last, both of which are pretty good showings. Less than impressive, The Newsroom’s 3rd season will be its final one having lurched between incredible and insulting.
Three other comedies of 2013 never made it out of their first season – Hello Ladies, Family Tree and Ja’mie: Private School Girl. No one seems to be mourning them.

What’s Returning
Game of ThronesGame of Thrones still has plenty of pages of books to trudge through and its ratings are still incredible, so I think it will be around for some time. True Detective got rave reviews from everyone except me and is expected to return for a second season, although it’s likely to be new character and actors.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is still listed as a current show even though there’ve been no new episodes since season 8 in 2011, apparently they’re “cautiously optimistic” of a 9th season, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Veep and Girls have both finished up their 3rd seasons and been renewed for fourths, while Looking (which could be called Boys) will be back early next year for a second season. Getting On and Silicon Valley are also new comedies which will return for a second season late this year or early next.

What’s New
The Leftovers (, starts June): 2% of the world’s population just vanished, these are the people who are left behind. This looks impressive, not exactly cheery, but certainly worth a look.

Togetherness (later this year): Absolutely no details available beyond it being a comedy from the Duplass brothers, considered the founders of “mumblecore” (low budget, amateur actors, natural dialogue). Can’t say I’m overwhelmed with excitement.

Four other shows are apparently greenlit but with no dates and very few details available. The Brink is a “dark comedy” about the US Secretary of State, starring Tim Robbins and Jack Black. Hopefully it’s not just a variation on a theme of Veep. Bailers is a half hour comedy starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson ass a retired athlete. Masters of the Air will be the follow up to Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and they’re also remaking the Channel 4 show, Utopia