TV Review: Looking – Looking for Now

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Looking – Looking for NowImage

Director Andrew Haigh’s big break came in 2011 when his low-budget rom-com Weekend, a charmingly funny film about a one-night stand between two men that blossoms into something more, became a critical sleeper-hit in the UK and US. Not long after, HBO came calling, asking Haigh to help writer Michael Lannan turn his short-film Lorimer into an 8-part TV series about the lives and loves of three gay men in San Francisco.

And here it is. Looking (Sky Atlantic) is a heart-warming, comfortable comedy-drama that manages to take a look at the lives of the gay-community without ever turning their sexuality into the issue. There’s no emotional coming-out scene or dealing with social rejection here, the three men and their friends are all completely comfortable in their own skins – well, nearly all of them – and have mightily impressive facial hair – well, nearly all of them. Their only problem, it seems, is that they aren’t really any good at the whole relationship thing. But then, who is?

Paddy (Jonathan Groff) is a shallow video-game designer who trawls OKCupid and the local park in search of a husband who can impress his mother. Dom (Murray Bartlett) works as a wine waiter and spends most of his time looking to get laid, only he may be getting too old to lure his usual prey of naïve young waiters. Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is the only one actually in a relationship, but it seems to be going rather well as they consider moving in together, although the impromptu threesome beneath a baroque art-installation suggests that Augustin might not be ready to settle down just yet.

It’s all shot in a subtle low-fi style that is similar to Haigh’s previous work, which marks Looking out from previous gay-focused shows such as Tales of the City and Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk that were more overtly dramatic. It lends a brilliant authenticity to most scenes with the main characters already feeling like established parts of the furniture. This is in no small part down to the excellent performances of the three leads, all of whom are unfailingly genuine and comfortable in every moment.

Without the obtrusive crutch of stereotypical gay-issues, the plot is open to exploring the universal problems of all relationships and giving them a unique flavour. Paddy encountering his ex in the men’s room was a genius move, playing on the inherent awkwardness and vulnerability of both situations, while the episode also deals with looking for love and a couple wanting different things from their relationship.

Most of these issues are addressed by Paddy as he suffers numerous awkward encounters in his flapping attempts to find love in San Francisco. It starts with a dodgy, fumbled hand-job from a hirsute stranger in the park (“cold hands”), which is halted abruptly when Paddy answers his phone, and doesn’t get much better. Paddy is, frankly, awful at the dating game with an embarrassing use of emoticons (really? Winky smile face?) and some even more embarrassing small-talk about business card-styles (“embossed, which is very fancy”). It’s unsurprising, yet still crushing, when his date tells him it’s not working out.

However, though Looking has oodles of charm and honesty, it is severely lacking in humour for a comedy-drama. It’s shooting for the kind of cringe-inducing moments that Girls does so well, but these characters – Paddy especially – are far too likeable for it to work. The key to this kind of humour is that victim brings it on themselves through an act of hubris, but Paddy is so desperate and tries so hard to make a good impression that when he is brought down it’s painfully upsetting rather than ruefully funny. I think a lot of this is due to Paddy’s lack of facial hair: his smooth face makes him look like a sad little puppy. Awww.

There’s a warning for Looking in the recent announcement that Stephen Merchant’s sitcom, Hello Ladies, has been axed by HBO. Like Looking, Merchant’s comedy often strayed too far into melancholy by playing up Stuart Pritchard’s feeling of loneliness. Still, even if the humour doesn’t quite land in this episode, there’s something overwhelmingly refreshing about Looking that it feels unlike anything else on TV right now. Including Girls

Click here to watch the trailer for Looking

Advertisements

TV Review: Girls: season three

Image

Photograph: Mark Schafer

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen episodes one and two of Girls: series three

When Girls, Lena Dunham’s smart comedy about disillusionment and relationships in New York, first aired two years ago it felt like a breath of fresh air, blending bleak observation comedy with hopeful poignancy and boasting myriad of great roles for women. Its rise hasn’t been without controversy, some critics were confused by the frequent nudity and many were put-off by a world seemingly full of entitled, privileged characters. But that’s always been part of the charm: these characters are utter shambles at life, completely failing to pursue their dreams or manage their relationships, and yet they’re so honestly written that their underlying insecurity is clear to see.

Not much seems to have changed in the year since we last saw them. Marnie is ostracised in suburbia with her over-bearing mother, licking her wounds after a brutal brake up with Charlie – partly enforced by the sudden departure of Christopher Abbot. Shoshanna is trying to continue the sexual awakening she experienced in the last series while preparing to graduate from college. And Jessa is back in rehab and causing all kinds of trouble, outing a fellow patient as a lesbian and entering into an unhealthy relationship with an ageing addict, and pseudo life councillor, played by Richard E. Grant. At least Hannah seems to be getting it together by progressing with her book deal and entering into what looks like a happy, loving relationship with Adam. Surely that can’t last?

From these first two episodes it look like series three is going to be much lighter in tone, especially in comparison to the rather dark place series two eventually ended up, with Jessa taking most of the funny lines: “They [drugs] are like a place holder for pussy.”

However, one area where Girls always seems to struggle is in the development of a meaningful plot. All too often episodes feel inconsequential, in no way developing the characters or their relationships. The first episode broke this trend with a loose theme about connection, summed up by Adam’s surprisingly moving speech about what it really means to know someone, but then the second episode reverted to type as a pointless journey across state to pick-up Jessa from rehab. Perhaps this is the point, the characters are currently flailing through life without direction and so the plot mirrors life. The problem with this is that without meaning to the story it can become difficult to care about what is going on. That said, the character are so well-written and the comedy so spot on that, more often than not, Girls is raucous good fun.

Click here to watch the trailer for Girls: series three

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Image

The Wolf of Wall Street is adapted from fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s boom-to-bust memoir of how he talked and snorted his way to millions in the 1990s via his penny stock boiler room Stratton Oakmont. With dwarf tossing, sunk super yachts, and public orgies on trading room floors, Wolf sees Martin Scorsese back to his dynamic best in this journey through the debauched side of New York’s financial sector.

We first meet Belfort (DiCaprio) as a wide-eyed young stockbroker, or pond scum as his superior likes to put it, on his first day at an established Wall Street firm. There he is taken under the mentoring arm of Mark Hana (McConaughey) who encourages him to start taking cocaine and jerking-off twice a day if he wants to be successful. But after losing his job in the aftermath of Black Monday, Belfort starts making a small fortune pushing penny stocks with an aggressive sales technique and realises he can make even more by setting up his own firm, and thus the Wolf of Wall Street, or ‘Wolfie’ to his friends, was born.

It’s easy to see why Scorsese was attracted to this project given his knack for making compelling movies featuring flawed characters (see: Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) and he directs here with an infectious energy that hasn’t been seen from him in a long while, skulking the camera through the heart of Belfort’s increasingly far-fetched escapades to the driving beat of a typically cool soundtrack. He’s also happy to stay with a scene long enough for the characters to really shine through – which explains the slightly laborious 3-hour runtime, and this leads to some excellent performances all round, including a live wire cameo from the ever-resurgent Matthew McConaughey.

Any comparison with Wall Street may be understandable given that Oliver Stone’s masterpiece is still the archetype for excess in the financial sector, but Wolf could also be considered as a companion to Goodfellas and Casino, as Scorsese offers up another cautionary tale of ambition, greed, and most prominently, addiction.

And there’s no greater addict than Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. Needing enough drugs to sedate Manhattan for five days just to get out of bed in the morning, Belfort has an insatiable desire to consume everything: money, power, women, drugs – his poison of choice being Quaaludes, a hypnotic sedative that at one points incapacitates Belfort behind the wheel of his precious white Ferrari in one of Wolf’s outlandishly funny scenes. DiCaprio drives the character with an unleashed performance of prowling charisma, confidently narrating his story (and this is only Belfort’s version of events, after all) in voice-over and direct to camera in between delivering Brave Heart-esque battle cries to his similarly rapacious employees. Belfort is closer to a cult leader than a Tony Montana-type drug lord such is the level of loyalty he engenders in his workers. He seems to thrive off their tribal chants of ‘Wolfie’ every time he takes the floor, his addiction to it explaining why he just can’t walk away; a move that ultimately brings about his downfall.

Some have criticised Wolf for glamourizing the hard-partying lifestyle of Stratton Oakmont’s employees, but that is missing the point. The debauched nature of their actions is depicted with a lurid revulsion, and for every naked prostitute there’s a flabby, leering stockbroker drooling over her because he’s taken so many Quaaludes that his limbs have turned to jelly. The tone is evidently condemnatory and anyone who thinks it’s attractive is just as much of a douche bag as these guys.

Also, the parties really aren’t the worst of it. The real scenes of depravity lie in the Stratton Oakmont boiler room, a sweaty-pit of testosterone where unsuspecting members of the public are pumped for what little cash they have. It’s here the we witness the inhuman contempt these stockbrokers have for their clients, bullying them into doing business while secretly flipping them off or miming anal sex, all to feel the rush of watching their bank balance bulge. This is where they really get their kicks – the salacious shindigs are just an elaborate way to manage the come-down.

As deplorable and disgusting as Belfort and his perverse band of merry men are, it’s our fascination with these characters that Scorsese is shining a light on. It’s not surprise when, after featuring in an unfaltering article likening him to a twisted Robin Hood, Belfort is met by a wave of eager applicants seduced by his way of life, nor when Belfort somehow manages to come out on top (the real Belfort has since reinvented himself as a motivational speaker). It’s a refreshingly honest ending to a movie that never pulls its punches in its lurid depiction of excess, proving that, in life, the bad guy often wins. Especially if he’s rich enough.

Runtime: 179 Minutes         Genre: Crime/Biopic             Released: 17th January 2014

Director: Martin Scorsese     Writers: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie

Click here to watch the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street

TV Review: Mob City – A Guy Walked Into a Bar

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Mob City – A Guy Walked Into a Bar

Image

Picture: Warner Brothers

Mob City, which began of Fox last night, follows in the footsteps of last years Gangster Squad and the video-game L.A. Noire in taking inspiration from the LAPD’s battle to rid Los Angeles of organized crime in the 1940s. Maybe that’s why, despite a stunning neo-noir aesthetic crafted by director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption), this feels like a hackneyed mix of thin plotting and even thinner characters, rather than a rip-roaring tale of moral depravity in the City of Angels.

Detective Joe Teague (Jon Brenthal), an LAPD officer and ex-marine, is surreptitiously hired by dead-beat comedian Hecky Nash (a cameoing Simon Pegg) to provide muscle as he attempts to blackmail Bugsy Siegel, the most powerful mobster in L.A.. Thematically this sticks close to the staples of the gangster genre, featuring widespread corruption amongst the LAPD, a plucky character who is undone by his own ambition, and of course the question of morality.

As Teague says, he “lives in a world of grey hats,” and the chief concern of this episode is finding out which side of the line he stands. At first he appears to be a good cop, accepting Nash’s offer in order to set-up a sting to catch the mobsters red-handed. Then he performs an about turn, executing Nash, taking his money, and framing the mafia for Nash’s murder. So he’s a mafia man, right? Well, he certainly stole the money on behalf of Bugsy’s men, but then he rejects their offer of becoming a mob enforcer; so I guess the best answer is that Joe Teague is out only for himself.

If this sounds like an incredibly thrilling plot, stuffed with unexpected twists and mafia chicanery, prepare to be disappointed. Though there’s massive potential in the subject matter for a dark, fast-paced story about the fight for L.A.’s soul, most of the time Mob City feels like a paint-by-numbers gangster-movie complete with a Goodfellas-style voice over and clunky 40s dialogue: “See ya Toots.”

Yes, it’s incredibly stylish, but that seems like an easy thing to achieve in this genre. All you need to create a sexy noir aesthetic are deep shadows, neon lights, and a smoked swathed jazz club where silhouetted men in trench coats and trilbies can knock back a couple of whiskeys, and you’ve got enough cool to make Don Draper look like a pencil-pushing dweeb.

Even the action, of which there is surprisingly little, is played for style rather than dramatic effect.  It’s very nice to see a slow-motion shoot-out to the tune of harmonising violins, a man shot-gunned through a confessional, or an execution bathed in the orange glow of a recently ignited flare, but these scenes tell us nothing about the characters other than they aren’t very nice – which seems fairly obvious given that they’re, you know, gangsters and everything.

This lack of invention is most evident in the painfully thin characterization. Aside from the basic archetypes of a reticent war veteran, a down-on-his-luck comedian, and a righteous cop we learn very little about these characters – other than they like to spout obfuscated dialogue about ‘a thing’ or ‘some business’ in a gravely tone that makes it clear that they’re tough guys.

It’s a fatal flaw because without a likeable character it’s important to have authenticity to keep the audience interested. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and there’s still plenty of time to develop the characters above hackneyed stereotypes. But if Mob City is going to become the fast-paced tale of moral ambiguity it has the potential to be, it needs to start developing its characters rather than hoping to get by on its admittedly stunning looks.

Click here to watch the trailer for Mob City

TV Review: Sherlock: His Last Vow

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Sherlock: His Last Vow

His Last Vow, the third episode of BBC One’s Sherlock, takes us to some dark, twisted places. Free from the relative bonhomie of the first two episodes that have marked Sherlock Holmes’ return to the world of the living, this finale gets back to the nitty-gritty of real detective work as the super sleuth faces-off against a new, formidable villain.

The villain in question is Charles Augustus Magnussen, played by The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen, an unctuous media mogul with perpetually sweaty palms who keeps a vault packed with the most salacious secrets of the rich and famous, and uses these ‘pressure points’ to assert control over every important person in the western world. The perverse pleasure he draws from licking the face of an unfortunate MP or flicking the eye of another victim gives Magnussen a Hannibal Lecter-like creepiness that the Danes seem to do so well. Mikkelsen’s character is a control freak if ever there was one, strolling into every scene with an effortless authority that allows him to dictate any conversation and even urinate in Sherlock’s fireplace.

It’s no surprise, then, that Sherlock refers to him as the one man he truly despises as he is ineluctably drawn into the blackmailer’s murky world through a case of stolen letters involving the MP who is leading a government inquiry into Magnussen’s dealings. But this swiftly moves into even darker territory as an even more important client emerges and an old enemy returns to taunt the master detective.

After all the playfully clever survivor-theories and stag-du anecdotes of the first two episodes, it’s good to see Sherlock getting back to some old-fashioned sleuthing and once again facing off against a truly terrible villain.  This, I feel, is when Cumberbatch’s kinetic performance really works with Sherlock deep in the throws of an obsession that takes him to a seedy crack den and unexpectedly places him into conflict with his brother, Mycroft, who appears to have a vested interest in the fate of Magnussen. As such, this episode is far darker, and far more compelling because of it, especially as events strike deep to the heart of Sherlock and Watson’s lives in surprising ways.

It does flag a little in the middle, seemingly flailing after a juicy twist, with lots of the series’ trademark style but very little action to back it up as Sherlock waits patiently for his prey to expose himself again. But the episode very quickly gets back on track, recalling The Empty Hearse’s connection with the London Underground and subtly referencing Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Empty House as things pound along to a typically unexpected and explosive conclusion that is sure to mount more than enough speculation to keep die-hard fan boys occupied for another two years.

The third series of Sherlock has been one of highs and lows. After cleverly side-stepping the tricky issue of explaining Sherlock’s faked death the writers seemed to get so stuck in re-establishing the chirpy bromance between Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Freeman’s Watson that the investigative drama fell into the background. But with His Last Vow Stephen Moffat brings Sherlock back to it’s very best. By turns heart-wrenching, endlessly surprising and utterly compelling, as usual Sherlock Holmes saves his best tricks for last.

Click here to watch the trailer for Sherlock: His Last Vow

TV Review: Hostages

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Hostages episode one.

Image

Picture: Channel 4

Hostages’ billing as a chance for C4 viewers to plug the gap left by the third series of Homeland does it a disservice. Yes, both are American imports based on original Israeli dramas and have plots centred around government secrets, moral dilemmas and a highly successful woman, but Hostages is far more direct in its approach, opting for heart-thumping thrills rather than ambiguous plot twists.

Dr Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) follows the Carrie Mathison-model as a high-flying surgeon whose family life is far from rosy. Her husband is having an affair with his assistant, her son is in deep with a violent drug dealer, and her daughter is pregnant and dating the unsuitable Boyd. To top it off, the night before she is due to operate on the President of the United States, Ellen’s family is taken hostage by badass FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) who gives her an impossible ultimatum: inject the President with an untraceable poison so that he dies on the operating table or her family gets it.

It’s clear that this is no Homeland wannabe. While there’s certainly not the same level of moral ambiguity or questionable loyalties about Dylan McDermott’s Carlisle, there are far more high-octane thrills, such as the opening bank robbery or the tension-riddled hostage-taking, to make this compelling Saturday night viewing.

Where it may struggle, however, is in maintaining the same level of tension across an entire series. There’s only so many ways to delay operating on the President – switching his IV to make him sick is one of the better options – before Ellen has to make her choice. Perhaps the focus will shift to how Carlisle uses his knowledge of the family’s secrets to manipulate the outcome, or quite possibly to a sort-of Stockholm-syndrome effect where Carlisle begins to empathise with his hostages, casting his loyalty into doubt – he’s already agreed to hide the daughter’s pregnancy, after all.

My hunch is that Hostages will eventually run out of steam with the Hollywood-style twists seen in this episode suggestive of writers who haven’t got enough original ideas to stretch out a limited premise across an entire series – was anyone surprised that the President’s Chief of Staff is in on it? Still, though it may not be as intelligent or considered as Homeland, it’s full of compelling performances and heart-thumping thrills, and that makes it compulsive Saturday night viewing; especially when the only real competition is yet another series of Dancing on Ice.

Click here to watch the trailer for Hostages