TV Review: Believe

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched Believe – episode one.

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Believe, a new sci-fi thriller that began on Watch last night, may boast the combined talents of recent Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón (director of Gravity) and new Star Wars supremo JJ Abrams, but it is far from a sci-fi extravaganza, invoking groans instead of wonder with its hackneyed characters and lazy acts of contrivance – or should that be fate, considering the blue butterfly that binds the characters together?

As you may expect from this Cuarón-directed pilot, there’s plenty of cinematic thrills to help the clunky plot along as a precocious child and her guardians are pursued by a ruthless assassin who’s late for a date with her mom. 

With Cuarón once again utilizing the long tracking shot to great effect, the opening salvo in which a family’s car is rammed off a dark road momentarily evokes the stomach-churning sensation of Gravity’s famous opening.

The plot follows cute-as-a-button Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a 10-year-old orphan with superpowers (telepathy and pigeon sonar, apparently) who is being hunted by a shady organization led by Skouras (a philanthropist businessman, obviously). That’s where Tate (Jake McLaughlin) comes in as a newly-escaped death row inmate who reluctantly agrees to keep Bo safe from Skouras’s clutches. For a sack load of cash, that is.

Although Bo and Tate are fundamentally character archetypes ripped right out of the odd-couple-genre handbook – she’s a naïve moppet; he’s got the combative aggression of the perennially wronged – McLaughlin and Sequoyah have good comic chemistry.

From Bo’s remark about why Tate cried on first meeting her (‘You remembered you were good once.”) it seems their relationship will focus on Bo’s unwavering kindness gradually thawing the hardened criminal.

Indeed, Bo’s attempts to change the life of a young doctor struggling with his dying father suggests there will be a procedural episode-structure whereby Bo elects to help a new good Samaritan each week, much to Tate’s chagrin.

The rest of the storyline, however, is really very silly with lazy leaps in logic, such as Bo and Tate successfully hiding in the one locker their assassin doesn’t search, and an ill though-out plot twist that is greeted with groans rather than bursts of shock.

Still, there’s potential for a nice little conspiracy thriller here with the purpose of Skouras’s organization and the origins of Bo’s powers left uncovered. If the writers can tone down the their silly imagination and ramp up the spectacle some more, then audiences may start to believe it is worth the watch.

Click here to watch the trailer for Believe

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Like the eponymous hotel in which it is set, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quaint, ornately stylized, exquisite film populated by myriad of zany characters – not least Ralph Fiennes’s devilishly charming Gustave. The distinctive Wes Anderson-y aesthetic may not win many new fans among the unconverted, but for those familiar with his particular brand of meticulous whimsy, this may be Anderson’s most entertaining film since The Royal Tenenbaums.

Following a Russian Doll-like structure, cleverly accentuated by a reduction in aspect ratio for every step back in time, TGBH is presented as a story within a story. It starts with Tom Wilkinson’s The Author recounting the time he visited the hotel as a young man and encountered it’s unassuming owner, Zero, who in turn recounts the tale of the hotel’s heyday and that of its finest concierge, M. Gustave.

The hotel of 1932 is an exquisite design. In purposeful contrast to the 1960’s prison of beige, in 1932 the hotel is a vibrant canvas of pastel colours and ornate, antiquated furnishings that, like the famous oil painting which sets the plot in motion, feels utterly priceless.

There’s a charming artificiality about the handmade models and hand painted landscapes used for exterior shots, one that is always there to remind you that you’re being spun an elaborate yarn.

But what a yarn it is. TGBH’s story is basically a series of comic sketches spawned from his attempts to evade the law after being framed for the murder of one of the hotel’s wealthiest guests.

This pacey who-dunnit-cum-art-heist is not only hilariously silly but also boasts a surprising splurge of action. That the murders, shootouts, ski chases and prison breaks never feel incongruous to the style is testament to the attention to detail Anderson gives every scene.

Though it may be titled The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is absolutely Gustave’s story; the hotel acts as a metaphor and a framing device, barely glimpsed during the middle third. It’s fortunate, therefore, that Ralph Fiennes is the best thing in this film.

It seems comedy may be Fiennes’s hidden metier and he is excellent as the charismatic, liberally perfumed (with L’Air de Panache, natch) concierge, mastering the rapid-fire delivery of wit and somehow maintaining his refinement during frequent, sudden outbursts of profanity.

Much like his treasured hotel, everything about Gustave is precisely tailored to please his guests – especially if they’re old, blonde, insecure and, crucially, wealthy. In another’s hands Gustave could be despicably unctuous, but with Fiennes he is extraordinarily likeable, able to befriend those from all walks of life, like Harvey Keitel’s bald, tattooed prisoner and the hotel’s gauche lobby boy, Zero, who becomes his most trusted friend.

It’s also in Gustave’s character that most of the film’s underlying sadness rests. For all his dedication and good manners, Gustave’s sensibilities, like that of his hotel, are hopelessly out of date with a world changing dramatically at the outbreak of war. It’s unsurprising that neither man nor hotel last long under the invading fascists, and there’s something desperately sad about the way Gustave and his narrators cling on to their various losses of the past as the world around them forgets and moves on.

However, this is an almost imperceptible undertone that is easily forgotten in the elegant designs of this gloriously silly yarn. Yes, the emotional heft is there for those who care to look, but it seems Anderson is trying hard to distract you with pretty pictures and entertaining characters, and I think he’s succeeding too.

Runtime: 100 Minutes        Genre: Comedy         Released: March 7th 2014

Director: Wes Anderson     Writers: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody

Click here to watch the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel

TV Review: Line of Duty – Series Two: Episode Six

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read the review unless you have watched Line of Duty – Series Two: Episode Six

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It may not have had the mouth-gaping dramatic turns of previous episodes and most of the bad guys may have failed to get their comeuppance, but the finale of BBC2’s Line of Duty was immensely satisfying and subtly gripping in a way not seen sine Broadchurch entranced audiences last spring.

In the end it was revealed that Denton was a part of the ambush. A moment of weakness brought about by a chance encounter with Carly Kirke persuaded her to agree to Akers’s plan to ambush Tommy as punishment for continuing his nefarious ways while under witness protection.

Of course, such a neatly defined resolution would be at odds with a show that has revelled in the subtle way it makes the audience doubt everyone. It’s therefore unsurprising that the overriding emotion when Denton is handed a life sentence is one of pity.

Denton was never a bad cop, never enticed by the lure of money even as her crippling debts mounted; in fact, Denton spent most of her life toeing the party line and all it got her was a miserable affair and a regrettable forced abortion.

Her one mistake was choosing to bend the law to save Carly Kirke, with whom she felt a motherly-connection, which only left her scrambling to cover her tracks as events spiralled out of her control.

Though some may dislike an ending that never attempts to wrap things up neatly by catching up with the real bad guys, such a resolution would have felt misplaced, especially as we all know that sometimes only the really bad get to win.

It therefore seems fitting that the one character who gets to come out on top is the perennially dodgy Dot Cotton who not only keeps his role as orchestrator of the ambush hidden but is also rewarded with a promotion to AC12. The only solace is that we will surely get to enjoy Craig Parkinson’s bent copper weaselling his way through a third series.

While much of the debate focused on the motivations of the bad guys, it was the airing of Hastings, Fleming and Arnott’s individual flaws that I found most intriguing.

For a time it looked like Hastings would choose to ignore Dryden’s crimes in the hope of securing a promotion to save his failing marriage, but in this episode he reaffirmed his sense of moral obligation by insisting he wanted to throw the book at Dryden.

Arnott showcased a mind-boggling ability to seduce a witness and two of his colleagues into bed, a talent he eventually put to good use to find the evidence to finally incriminate Denton.

However, it was Fleming’s mounting personal troubles that proved most surprising. In an unusual storyline for a female character, Fleming was reduced to living in her car after cheating on her husband, later turning up drunk at her family home demanding to see her son. The guilt she felt for having an affair with Akers’s husband ultimately drove her to solve the case, a determination that became more pronounced as her personal life collapsed.

The finale of Line of Duty may have felt a tad subdued without a showy final twist and with far less action than previous episodes, but it is an excellent example of subtle, long-form storytelling that can rival any TV show in the world right now.

Click here to watch the trailer for Line of Duty – Series Two

TV Review: The Americans Season Two – Episode One “Comrades”

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen The Americans – “Comrades”Image

The premise of The Americans is simple. Set during the Cold War, two sleeper KGB agents move to America to pose as a travel-brochure-ideal American family (two kids, nice suburban home with a white picket fence) only for their mission to be complicated when an FBI agent moves in across the street.

But what sets it apart is the ability to take aspects of a taut espionage thriller – covert handoffs, seedy assassinations, bugged government offices and natty wigs all make a comeback – and blend them with a complex domestic drama for an inextricably gripping mixture that has only become more so with “Comrades”, which kicked-off season two on ITV last night.

It’s seems that the writers are keen to remind us just how absorbing this mixture can be as we see how the inherent paranoia that comes with being an enemy spy in a foreign land can seep into family life. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is on edge after her near-fatal shooting last season, checking all windows and doors are locked and watching breathlessly every time a car makes a pass of the house. There’s even a literal deer caught in the headlights just to ram home the metaphor.

Meanwhile Paige is sifting through her mother’s dirty laundry looking for clues and staying-up late to fret over her parents whereabouts (this ends when she walks in on her parents in a, ahem, compromising position, which is never good, no matter how cute Flora make it appear).

Yet it’s not just the Jenningses who are struggling to keep their professional and private lives separate. FBI agent Stan Beeman may be trying hard to repair his broken marriage, but he still continues his safe-house trysts with Nina, the beautiful Russian Embassy worker, as both try to ply each other for information while hiding their true affection for one another. The blurred lines between these relationships is laid bare when Stan takes his wife to see a movie that he had previously watched with Nina on a pirate VHS tape (one of the many period pieces subtle placed throughout the season).

Naturally, the Jennings’s fragile boundaries between their professional and personal lives come crashing down in a tense finale when Philip is forced to carry out a risky hand-off during a family outing. Philip makes it clear to the Emmett that he’s uncomfortable bringing his son along to the exchange and putting his family so close to danger. It’s a fear that, it transpires, is entirely justified when he finds Emmett and his family coldly murdered in their hotel room. The moment Emmett’s son finds his family and collapses in a fit of screams acts as a painful reminder to Phil of the fate that could so easily befall his own son.

Considering Paige’s increasing suspicion of her parents activities and the fact that the FBI appear to be getting closer to the Jenningses now they’re investigating the deaths of two Afghan men that Philip clumsily dispatched early on, it appears the main focus of season two will be how the tension of working for the KGB impacts the Jennings’s wider family unit rather than just their marriage. It will be interesting to see how Philip and Elizabeth react as their secret comes closer to being revealed, and my hunch is that the family will be pulled apart before the season ends. One thing is certain, though: The Americans just keeps getting better and better.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Americans

TV Review: The Michael McIntyre Chat Show

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Tucked away in a relatively quiet 10:35pm time slot, stand-up Michael McIntyre made his chat show debut on BBC1 last night. It’s a format that could do with a new face to offer an alternative to the traditional triumvirate of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton and Alan Carr; and though other have failed to make a lasting impression (including one of McIntyre’s guests, Lilly Allen), there are signs in this still-rough-around-the-edges debut that Mr McIntyre may well be our man.

He could do with a better set designer, though. The navy blue cityscape and dark wood furnishings look a lot like an uninspired rip-off of The Jonathan Ross Show. Even his bland dark suit seems to have been stolen from a modern Wossy’s wardrobe.

But while the surroundings lack originality, McIntyre brings a unique personality to proceedings. I expected his foppish-excitability shtick to be at odds with the calm, steady demeanour usually required of a host, but McIntyre’s childish scamper around the stage to reveal the production secrets behind his showbiz entrance (it involves a man with a pole) added a refreshing sense of fun to proceedings. The funniest moments were of course found in his interactions with the audience (something which makes up a large portion of the show). One plucky member was picked out to play “send to all”, a game that provided a regular source of laughs throughout the show.

Yet, it’s because of his bubbly personality that McIntyre seems to struggle as an interviewer. A bold line-up of Terry Wogan, Alan Sugar and Lilly Allen offered easy opportunities for entertaining anecdotes, but aside from a well-researched montage of Wogan’s hosting days and the knowledge that Lilly Allen is apparently big in Australia, McIntyre failed to extract anything of note from his guests. I think this is because, as a stand-up, McIntyre is so used to holding the stage alone that he doesn’t know when to step back, often happily chattering away instead of letting his guests talk. Maybe he needs to take Terry Wogan’s advice and blend into the background a bit more.

All in all, this was a positive, if slightly rough, first outing for McIntyre as a chat show host. McIntyre showed he’s got the personality to carve a niche for himself in a difficult format and is, based on the evidence of this show at least, capable of attracting a high calibre of guest. If only he’d take Wogan’s advice and shut-up every now and then…

Click here to watch the first episode of The Michael McIntyre Chat Show on BBC iPlayer

300: Rise of an Empire

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In one of the many, many ominous warnings delved out in Rise, Ephialtes, the deformed hunchback who betrayed Leonidas in the first film, warns “There will be death and destruction” – which, it turns out, was putting it lightly. 300 was not exactly known for its subtlety, but this long-awaited sequel ramps the whole thing up several notches to deliver a tidal wave of bronzed abs, CGI blood splatter, and gloriously camp double entendres like “Seize your glory”. What’s more, everyone involved seems to be immensely proud of it.

Rise may well be the first of its kind: a prequel, sidequel and sequel all rolled into one conspicuously overstuffed Spartan codpiece. Set before, during and after Leonidas’s last stand at the Hot Gates, this sees Themistocles (Stapleton, whose accent I’m still struggling to place) leading a maritime siege against the terrifying Artemisia (Eva Green) and her prodigious naval forces. Naturally, this offers plenty of scope for sea-faring carnage and rousing speeches, such as “We chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees,” that don’t quite live up to Gerard Butler’s “This is Sparta!” rallying cry.

Clearly, there was a desire to increase the scale of this sequel, but it may have been to its detriment. The focused narrative of 300 gave credence to the Spartan’s underdog status, but by turning things up to eleven the Greek forces can no longer be considered as such. Combine this with a loss of the mythical resonance that made the original 300 seem super-human and all that’s left is a bunch of over-pumped, over-tanned men in silly costumes spouting nonsense about fighting for honour, glory and vengeance.

There’s a lack of invention in the direction, too. Noam Murro basically acts as a Zack Snyder substitute, diligently delivering the speed-ramped gore-fest that fan’s are baying for but without the vim and vigour of the original. Often this technique is used at the wrong moment: we don’t really need to see a horse neigh in slow motion.

Perhaps this is a much of a muchness, as Rise ultimately delivers exactly what its audience has come to see: unctuous Greeks in tight leather hot-pants, wielding swords and spears like giant metallic penis enhancers, decapitating Persians with a satisfying spew of blood, and just generally being all manly.

Yet, it’s Eva Green who manages to emerge from this whirl-pool of sweaty testosterone to own the film. A sultry dominatrix who enjoys a pre-battle peace negotiation/shag-fight and making-out with recently decapitated heads, Green’s Artemisia is utterly believable as a female warrior and leader of men, not to mention being completely terrifying without ever straying into male-villain parody.

Strangely, man-turned-god Xerxes (Santoro) is largely absent from proceedings, despite time being taken to flesh-out (literally) his back-story. His role is limited to standing on the side-lines like a gold, homoerotic Christmas tree. Most probably his story is being saved for a follow-up, as the obviously sequel-bating ending would suggest.

While it remains to be seen if the Greek warriors will be given another run-out, Rise is a visual feast if little else, offering up campy action and cheesy dialogue with absolutely no shame. It’s Carry On Sparta and it’s a lot of fun.

Runtime: 102 minutes         Genre: Action/Epic    Released: Mach 7, 2014

Director: Noam Murro          Writers: Zack Snyder (screenplay), Frank Miller (Graphic novel)

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro

Click here to watch the trailer for 300: Rise of an Empire

TV Review: Rake – Serial Killer

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Rake – Serial KillerImage

As you may expect from a show titled Rake, a historical term for a man prone to immoral conduct, the protagonist, Keegan Deane (Greg Kinnear), is your typical unlikeable antihero; on the surface at least. Like the Walter Whites and Gregory Houses of this world, Deane has a respectable job as a criminal defence lawyer by day, and by night he drinks heavily, visits a prostitute he has on retainer, takes a beating over an unpaid debt, and gambles into the early hours before passing out on his best friend’s kitchen table.

Unlike Breaking Bad and House, however, you don’t get the dreaded sense of impending doom that comes with watching a reckless man descend into moral degradation, mostly because Rake opts for a much lighter tone, playing Deane’s self-destructive behaviour for laughs.

Deane is more hapless than troubled, and only becomes more loveable as he bounds from one self-imposed calamity to another (getting pulled over by cops while on the school run, causing his son to crash a car) like a particularly unruly puppy, but in a nicer suit. The fact that he spends most of this episode fruitlessly wheeling a cooler containing a prized tuna-fish that he hopes will help pay-off his insurmountable debts only serves to make him look more ridiculous.

His is one hell of a narcissist, though, and this episode mostly concerns itself with the pratfalls of seeking fame. When Deane takes the case of accused serial killer, Jack Tarrant, it’s obvious that defending the innocent is the last thing on his mind as he drones-on about “exposure” and working on his tan in preparation for a big TV interview. Likewise, Tarrant is only in such a position because he was enticed by the notoriety of being a serial killer and agreed to confess to get the media attention.

What’s all the more refreshing about Rake is that Deane eventually decides to do the right thing, convicting Tarrant for the murder he did commit and forcing an investigation into the cop who forced him to confess to nine others. Rake offers something different to the usually tropes of the morally sketchy protagonist by leaving the audience with a sense of optimism and a belief that Deane may one day turn his life around. Whilst I fear the plot may becoming frustrating as Deane continues to mess-up people’s lives without showing signs of personal growth, right now, Rake is a refreshingly light take on the unlikeable antihero. 

Click here to watch the trailer for Rake