TV Review: Derek – Series Two; Trying Again

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Derek, the latest mockumentary from The Office-creator Ricky Gervais, returned to Channel 4 for a second series last night, possibly to the surprise of many. The comedy-drama about the residents and staff of a dreary retirement home has experienced a relentless wave of criticism since the pilot episode aired in 2012, mostly for Gervais’ portrayal of a character with physical and mental disabilities, leaving many pundits questioning how it got a second series.

Gervais was typically robust in his response to the criticism, insisting that, as he created the character only he can decide whether it is deliberately mocking or not, and he seems to be addressing those critics again in this episode. The plot sees Derek’s drunken, randy dad move in to Broad Hill and, in between putting the moves on the home’s eligible ladies, ask Derek to write a list expressing his deepest fantasies. We then see the list handed to the usually gentle manager Hannah (Kerry Godliman), who uncharacteristically mocks Derek’s desires before instantly feeling guilty when she read that his only real wish is for Hannah to be happy. The message seems pretty clear: Hannah, like so many others, got Derek’s character wrong and maybe Gervais’ critics did to.

Not that Derek has ever been a problem for me. I’ve always considered the naïf care worker to be one of the few comedy leads it’s actually OK to like, being as he isn’t a brash office manager or an arrogant background artist. Whilst his trouble in forming the correct verbs (“I likes animals”) may overstate his naivety, there’s no doubt that Derek’s lack of social awareness and his unfailing kindness are endearing, and it’s simply a lovely feeling to spend half an hour in his company.

One point where the critics may be right is that the show can be excessively sentimental as Gervais over pushes the emotion by underscoring every scene with a despondent soundtrack and writing awkwardly blunt dialogue for the interview scenes to needlessly remind the audience that these characters are disadvantaged: “I love it hear. It’s like being at home, except everyone here is really nice.”

There was a lot of these interview scenes during this episode, quite possibly to make up for the non-existent plot. Apart from the aforementioned list fiasco and Dougie (Karl Pilkington) finally quitting after one calamity too many, there isn’t a whole lot going on at Broad Hill. Maybe it needs a small, series-long story, like the potential closure of the home in series one, to give the characters some impetus, because right now they’re just shuffling around the place looking like they have nothing to do.

 But this is a minor foible in what is a very good comedy, one that always manages to maintain a tricky balance of humour and pathos. In one uproarious scene, Dougie, moments after being electrocuted by a faulty plug, storms out of the home and describes his hair as “like Ken Dodd”; but almost immediately, laughter gives way to being on the brink of tears as Derek touchingly watches a DVD compilation of his deceased friend Lizzie’s best moments.

Sure, Derek isn’t Ricky Gervais’ best work, and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an unapologetically sweet, often hilarious, and deeply affecting comedy-drama nevertheless.

If any show could be accused of being excessively kind and sentimental it’s surely Trying Again, the latest home-grown comedy to air on Sky Living. Co-creator Chris Addison plays bland tourist information officer Matt who is somewhat half-heartedly trying to repair his relationship with medical receptionist Meg (Jo Joyner) after she had an affair with a colleague.

It’s a nice concept and aims to follow the Gervais model of finding humour in the humdrum; but rather than a satirical slice of life, the ordinary setting (Kendal) and ordinary people come across as overwhelmingly twee. Aside from a brilliantly bonkers therapy session where even the therapist skirts around the word ‘sex’, most of the gags are out-dated with a running joke about the perils of predictive text coming about ten years too late. 

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The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014)

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Coming just five years after the compromised Spiderman 3, many naysayers saw The Amazing Spiderman as an unnecessary, unwanted reboot hastily realized to retain ownership of a profitable property poised to return to the hands of superhero supremoes Marvel.

Inevitably they were proved wrong. Marc Webb delivered a fresh, energetic take on a character that had stalled by the end of the Tobey Maguire-era, adding a wry humour and complex character relationships to Sam Raimi’s entertaining sci-fi eye-candy.

We begin Andrew Garfield’s second outing as everyone’s favourite spider-impersonator with Peter Parker loving being Spiderman, kicking things off with an exhilarating heist during which Spidey cracks-wise while in pursuit of Paul Giamatti’s deliriously hammy Rhino (pre-mech suit). Some of this can feel dated – especially the cheesy supervillain quips (“It’s my birthday – time to blow out the candles.”) – but otherwise the action here follows super-sequel protocol by ramping up the scale and the web-slinging action is far more immersive now the disorientating POV camera has been ditched.

Ever since his creation by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, Spiderman has always straddled the line between superhero antics and teen soap drama, and director Marc Webb once again puts Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (Stone) front and centre. The couple repeatedly break-up and get back together during the film with their relationship complicated by Peter’s promise to stay away from her; though this sometimes strays too far into melodrama, for the most part Peter and Gwen are an incredibly engaging couple with a sparky chemistry (“I’m sorry I didn’t take us to the Bahamas of hiding places.”).

A lot of this is down to the strong performance of Emma Stone. Here Gwen is the genius, going straight from high school to a job at Oscorp and winning a scholarship to Oxford, and Stone has elevated her character to more than a mere damsel waiting to be saved by making her more determined to get involved in the action. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a superhero film with a stronger female role – possibly Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in the up-coming X-Men: Days of Future Past?

The rest of the main cast also turn in fantastic performances. If Jamie Foxx overplays the nerdy aspects of Oscorp-nobody Max Dillon, he more than makes up for it with a seething turn as Electro, who gains his powers in the obligatory Spiderman way: in an Oscorp lab accident involving electric eels. Foxx plays Electro as a reluctant villain who just wants to be recognized and who targets Spiderman for stealing his attention.

Likewise, Dane DeHaan makes a more compelling Harry Osborn than the charming-but-bland James Franco, blending the desperation of not wanting to end up like his father with just the right amount of privileged smarm to give scenes between Harry and Peter a more menacing edge.

In truth, all of this is a bit too much, with TASM2 always in danger of falling into the Spiderman 3-trap of over-egging the plot with too many baddies. Electro, The Green Goblin and Rhino are all given origin stories here as Song somewhat desperately gear-up for two upcoming sequels and a Sinister Six spinoff. But without a main antagonist to terrorize New York it’s hard to get a sense of Spiderman being under threat, something that threatens to derail the drama of his relationships.

That said, Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci just about get the pacing of these origin stories right, allowing them to build strongly towards a surprisingly powerful and moving end that points to Webb moving Spiderman in a darker direction.

If that is the case, Webb and co must be careful not to let a moodier tone eviscerate the humour because, along with the excellent attention to the relationships and character drama, this light-hearted wit is exactly what makes this version of Spiderman so enjoyable to watch. 

Runtime: 142 Minutes   Genre: Superhero/Action   Released: 16 April 2014

Director: Marc Webb   Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx

Click here to watch the trailer for The Amazing Spiderman 2

TV Review: Fargo – Episode One

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When Fox first announced plans to adapt the Coen brother’s highly regarded black-comedy Fargo into a 10-part miniseries, fans of the 1996 classic were understandably perturbed.

After all, how often does a beloved movie translate into an equally fulfilling (if not more so) TV series? For every Buffy The Vampire Slayer there’s a Ferris Bueller or a Blade: The Series (or even, some might say, a Marvel’s Agents of Shield).

Fargo fanatics could therefore be forgiven for instantly dismissing Noah Hawley’s adaptation as the work of a greedy TV network shamelessly rehashing old ideas to make a quick buck rather than taking the risk on something more original and virtuous. But that would be a mistake as Fargo overcomes an unsure start to suggest it has all the makings of a brilliant, brooding miniseries.

It starts in the same way the Coen’s did 18 years ago: a disingenuous disclaimer tells us that these events are true and only the names have been changed as we watch a car traverse a stretch of black tarmac that slices through desolate snowfields. Tonally, Hawley’s series is indivisible from cinema, right down to the black comedy (such as Bob Odenkirk’s gag-sensitive deputy) and ‘Minnesota nice’ milieu. This often works to its disadvantage as the first episode struggles to find its own unique rhythm.

Hawley’s story follows Martin Freedman’s nebbish, milquetoast insurance salesman Lester Nygaard. Similar to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard but not nearly as slimy, Lester struggles to make a living, is ridiculed by a wife who would rather be married to his younger brother, and is still being taunted in the street by his high-school bully. Life repeatedly berates Lester, much like the thumping churn of his faulty washing machine that is used to great effect throughout the episode.

A chance encounter in an emergency room inevitably throws Lester into the orbit of Lorne Malvo (an unsettlingly twitchy Billy Bob Thornton), the Coen’s traditional devil in a bad haircut, who offers him the chance to claw back some self-respect by setting off a chain of events that will infect the entire town. Thornton’s Malvo is a motiveless agent of chaos, introducing murderous violence to a mundane town simply because he gets a kick out of it.

This seems redolent of True Detective in its suggestion that violence, money and size of your gun are the only meaningful measures of masculinity. Disappointingly, in this episode at least, this diminishes the role of women, most notably Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman slotting into the Marge Gunderson role), a naïve policewoman who sees herself as inferior to her male colleagues. Here’s hoping Molly grows in experience and determination as the series goes on, and eventually cuts through all the macho posturing to solve the crime.

For about the first hour, the story is strangely unexceptional, plodding through the ordinary-man-breaks-bad storyline as it gets caught between evoking a sense of the movie and forging its own path. But the final thirty minutes, after Malvo’s sinister mechanisations have taken hold, are much stronger, becoming bolder and bloodier as the world of mindless violence starts to take over the small-town and all who inhabit it.

It’s not a perfect start for Fargo as it struggles to step out from the shadow of the Coen’s movie and find its own original groove in the story, but it finishes strong, making the most of the great performances from a stellar cast. All of which bodes well for the remaining nine episodes.

I guess a Fargo TV series might not be such a bad idea after all, eh?

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

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“Everybody knows the sequel is never quite as good,” our favourite fuzzy friends admit in a catchy opening number, tackling the challenges of living up to the rejuvenating success of The Muppets with their usual self-reverential humour. They’re right of course, Muppets Most Wanted isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but there’s still enough anarchic humour, old-fashioned pizazz and absurd accents to make it an enjoyable follow up.

The main plot riffs effectively on crime capers of the ‘60s, setting up Ricky Gervais as a master criminal using The Muppets international tour as a cover for his unscrupulous schemes. However, it is needlessly attenuated by a rote segment involving Kermit’s mistaken incarceration in a Serbian gulag in place of evil doppelganger Constantine.

Add to this Miss Piggy’s wedding preparations and a buddy-cop pairing of Sam The Eagle and Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Burrell) and it’s no wonder the plot quickly becomes unmanageable, helplessly careening from one half-baked plot point to another with all the momentum of a reversing locomotive.

Where The Muppets wrapped its story in affectionate nostalgia and had a uplifting story about Walter’s search for his true talent, MMWs scattershot approach makes for a more conventional comedy that rifles off the gags thick and fast but forgets to make us care about the characters involved.

It seems this role was supposed to be filled by Kermit whining that he’s been forgotten by his friends and left to rot in a Russian prison but it never quite rings true, partly because this story isn’t given enough time to develop and partly because… well, he’s Kermit, he is The Muppets – how could he think he’s not wanted?

As always there are plenty of celebrity cameos to keep it all rattling along but these also become excessive with the sheer number of celebrity faces not only distracting but also diminishing the performances of the main (human) cast. It’s hard not to view Gervais, Burrell and Tina Fey’s roles as anything other than glorified cameos when they’re given such limited screen time.

Not that any of this is ruinous, the movie is never short of laughs and ends on an uplifting note with another catchy sing-along that, like all the other musical numbers in this sequel, is perfectly entertaining but which never quite hits the heights of Man or a Muppet.

And that’s MMW in a nutshell: close, but not quite. It’s ridiculous, chaotic, catchy and eventually uplifting – pretty much everything you could want in a Muppet movie. It’s just not quite as good as you want it to be.

Runtime: 107 Minutes         Genre: Musical/Comedy       Released: 28 March 2014

Director: James Bobin           Writers: James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller

Cast: The Muppets, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey

Click here to watch the trailer for Muppets Most Wanted

Noah (2014)

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About halfway through Darren Aronofsky’s epic retelling of the story of Noah, the Black Swan director opts to illustrate Russell Crowe’s narration of the story of creation with a strobing, time-lapsed montage of evolution, taking us from the Big Bang right up to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It’s an incredibly ballsy move; but then Noah is a pretty ballsy movie – combining an ambitious scope with provocative themes to deliver a thoroughly modern blockbuster.

Though ostensibly set 3000 years in the past (according to Dr Osgood anyway), there’s a suggestions that we’re not worlds away from the present day. Aronofsky presents us with a near post-apocalyptic world where a rapacious humanity has mined the planet of its divinely-powered resources and turned it into an industrialized wasteland where the water runs green with pollution and long-forgotten species have been hunted to extinction.

Outside the primordial smog, Noah (Crowe) and his young family eke out a nomadic existence, only taking from the earth what that absolutely require. In this way they should be considered as the world’s first environmentalists.

This ecological theme feeds nicely into a harsh critique on the arrogance of man. Noah’s depiction of mankind as a festering cesspit of sin – children are stolen and traded for food; the poor are made to live in ditches among the dead – is indicative of a species that has taken the concept of man being created to protect all things and bastardized it into a God-given right to taker ownership of everything in sight.

It’s a view embodied by Ray Winstone’s brilliantly menacing Tubal-cain, whose colossal god-complex allows him to stomp around spitting “I’ll take what I want” with all the arrogant authority of man who sees himself as God’s equal.

The only downside is that the plot takes far too long to get going. Aeons seem to pass as Noah, plagued by diluvial visions, unites a team of naff-looking stone-age Transformas – actually fallen angels, or ‘Watchers’, who have been shackled by molten rock – to construct a 300-cubic-long shipping container and finally fills it with all the world’s beasts and creep-crawlies. Large parts of this feel wholly unnecessary, especially when the basics of Noah’s story are so well known, and only detract from the best moments which come post-flood.

At this point the claustrophobic atmosphere on board the Ark shifts the tone into a kind of psychological thriller as Noah beings to torment his own family in the belief that even his children and grandchildren must perish if the world is to be saved.

Such a tonal-shift requires a strong performance from the movie’s lead actor, and Russell Crowe is the perfect casting for Noah’s beleaguered patriarch, who has to play the part of both saviour of humanity and accomplice in its genocide. The emotional toll this takes on Crowe’s character is intelligently portrayed via Noah’s dramatic ageing as he declines from a buff, idealistic hero into a aged, lassitude drunk, weathered by time and the effects of survivor’s guilt.

But Noah is also boosted by a strong supporting cast, whose roles have been greatly expanded from the source material. Emma Watson in particular shines as Noah’s adopted daughter Ila, who questions her own worth in the new world when she is unable to have children, as does Logan Lerman’s Ham, the classic middle son whose enforced isolation is made all the more insufferable after his father allows his innocent love interested to die violently.

Noah may start slow but it ends on a high, tying together difficult themes of environmental disaster and our own arrogance of our place in the world into a hopeful conclusion. It’s not always comfortable viewing – at times it’s outright brutal – but that’s precisely what makes it such an affecting watch, something which can’t be said of many modern day blockbusters.

Runtime: 138 Minutes         Genre: Adventure/Drama    Released: 4 April 2014

Director: Darren Aronofsky Writer: Ari Handel, Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman 

Click here to watch the trailer for Noah

TV Review: The Trip to Italy

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen The Trip to Italy – episode one.

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When the first series of The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s improvisational comedy in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon embark on a gastronomic tour of Cumbria, first aired in 2010 I have to admit I was not a fan.

I just didn’t get it. Yes, the lingering shots of sumptuous food and the misty panoramas of the north-west countryside were very beautiful, but the action, which mostly consisted of Brydon and Coogan competing to see who could do the least-worst impression of Michael Caine, and deliberate lack of plot felt overwhelmingly indulgent and not nearly funny enough to make up for it.

Happily, their second outing, where Brydon is this time commissioned to right a food piece on Italian cuisine and invites his sort-of friend along for the journey, is surprisingly hilarious.

This time out, Brydon and Coogan appear to be much more comfortable in sending their improvised impressions sequences into increasingly bizarre scenarios. One stand out moment from last night’s episode sees the pair impersonating the cast of The Dark Knight Rises and quickly segues into a brilliant role-play where Coogan acts as the unfortunate Assistant Director who has to tell Brydon’s Christian Bale and Tom Hardy that no one can understand a word they’re saying.

The genius of Michael Winterbottom is in allowing the creative talents of Brydon and Coogan to run wild with their imaginations. The fact that I could just as easily mention Brydon’s interrogation of Coogan for his own murder or the part where Coogan admits he’d prefer to eat Mo Farah’s legs if he was stranded on a desert island is testament to the excellence of the comedy pair’s form here.

The reason this is so much more enjoyable is because the tone is much lighter this time, aided greatly by the change in setting. In direct contrast to the gloomy isolation of northern England, the sunnier climbs of the Italian Riviera feels more appropriate for a comedy and everyone involved seems much more willing to have a good time as a result.

I also think this lighter mood makes the poignancy of Brydon and Coogan contemplating their advancing years much more affecting. Both men are dealing with rejection at the start of this journey – Brydon has lost a lucrative voiceover gig and Coogan is on an enforced hiatus after his US show “Pathology” was cancelled – and there is a sense they both fear they will soon be forgotten as Coogan laments that beautiful women no longer find him attractive. The culmination of this moment, where Coogan turns to face the sea and reflects that “nature never disappoints you”, is all the more profound because it is in direct contrast to the upbeat, silly tone of the restaurant scenes. 

 The Trip to Italy is something all to rare in the world of television: a sequel that is demonstrably better than it’s predecessor. It’s uproariously funny, genuinely unique and ties it all up with real moments of profound reflection, and features two of the greatest comedy performers of our time. I still think the first series was utter bunkum though.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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As a superhero, Captain America has always been considered a bit of a bore within the Marvel canon. He doesn’t come with any of the magical/high-tech accompaniments of Thor and Iron Man and his righteous flag-waving makes him appear like a 95 year-old fuddy-duddy, especially when it’s compared with Tony Stark’s fast-talking arrogance and the beefy charms of everyone’s favourite Norse god.

It’s an image co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo clearly try hard to dispel in The Winter Soldier, evoking an old-school spy thriller to establish Steve Rogers as the biggest badass this side of the Bifrost.

Post-Avengers, Rogers (Evans) is quickly growing tired of being Nick Fury’s “caretaker” for the morally ambiguous spy network SHIELD. A taut opening set-piece, in which Rogers and a team of SHIELD agents tackle a crew of Algerian pirates, kicks off a 70s conspiracy thriller vibe as Rogers discovers the mission was in fact a clandestine attempt to recover encrypted data.

Writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus bravely evoke shades of the NSA’s privacy invasion and America’s contentious drones programme by pitting Rogers’s 1940s morality against a post-9/11 America where “Trust No One” is SHIELD’s unofficial mantra.

This more mature, overtly political tone acts as a refreshing change of pace for Marvel and is given credence by the casting of Robert Redford as shady big-wig Alexander Pierce – suggesting Three Days of the Condor as an inspiration.

Even though this is Marvel’s most heavily-plotted, talkative movie yet, there’s still no shortage of action as 70s paranoia gradually shifts into a more modern spy thriller – the most obvious touching point being the Bourne series. After being targeted by a super-powered assassin (the underused Winter Soldier), Rogers and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow are forced to go off grid until they can figure out whom they really trust.

The action here takes an old-school, stripped-down approach with Rogers utilizing his fists and vibranium-shield as weapons to take down the bad guys in a way that’s much more visceral and thrilling without the whizz-bang sci-fi spectacle of Marvel’s previous outings.

Thanks to the 70-year time jump between this and First Avenger, Rogers has no regular co-stars to call upon, so drafts in some of his The Avengers cohorts to fill out the cast.

Scarlett Johansson’s irreverent Black Widow is given more screen time than in any previous movie, and her modern cynicism and willingness to lie nicely tempers Rogers’s unfailing patriotism in a sparky double act.

And amid airing his gripes about Nick Fury’s constant obfuscations, Rogers still finds time to buddy-up with ex special operations veteran Sam Wilson, who, if little else, provides mild comic relief.

 It’s only when Wilson dons the gear of The Falcon and the wings pop-out that things start to turn a bit silly; Wilson’s steam-punk-angel look feels completely incongruous to the rough-and-ready action on show.

At this point the plot starts to slip into the inevitable blockbuster catastrophe as SHIELD’s fleet of helicarriers come in for yet more ruinous treatment. The clever use of SHIELD as a morally ambiguous organization is tarnished by easy to figure plot twists – the Winter Soldiers’ true identity is nowhere near as surprising as it’s played to be – and overly nostalgic flashbacks to the first film that pointlessly add to a potentially over-wrought runtime.

Not that any of this is fatal, and the writers save it by posing a fascinating end-note, which must surely have wider ramifications for the wider Marvel universe – the Agents of SHIELD television series in particular.

Captain America may not be the flashiest of Marvel’s heroes, but The Winter Soldier’s old-school spy thriller sets him out as the most morally complex and thematically interesting character in the canon. One that doesn’t need a billionaire’s suit or a hammer gifted from the gods to run rings around his enemies.

Runtime: 136 Minutes         Genre: Action/Thriller          Released: 26 March 2014

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo   Writers: Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson

Click here to watch the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier