TV Review: Playhouse Presents: Foxtrot

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Playhouse Presents, Sky Arts’ largely excellent series of one-off quirky dramas, is inevitably scattershot in the quality of its output, but its ability to draw together top writers and starry performers makes it worth the watch regardless.

The latest series continued last night with Foxtrot, a tensely scripted drama about an ill-fated kidnapping by an all-girl gang, written by acclaimed playwright Polly Stenham.

Billie Piper and Alice Sanders starred as the rookie hostage-takers Badger and Fox, who are introduced throwing shapes to 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ as the pull into a typically drab motorway services just to clarify that we are in gritty British crime-drama territory here.

The girls, under the orders of their chillingly stern boss Mrs Delloway (Lindsay Duncan, who also starred in Stenham’s debut hit That Face), have kidnapped Ben Wishaw’s Ezra and wait it out in a pokey motel room until Delloway gives them permission to release him. However, their best laid plans go awry, as such things are wont to do, when they learn that they’ve nabbed the wrong Wishaw, taking the mark’s mentally handicapped twin brother by mistake, which leaves the girls in a rather sticky situation.

This is Stenham’s first TV drama, yet she has adroitly transferred her usual themes from the stage to the small screen. Like That Face and Tusk Tusk, Foxtrot centres on a dysfunctional family where, though not actually related, Badger and Fox squabble like siblings (“Seriously, you strip in a burka?”) and cower under the penetrative whisper of their matriarchal boss Mrs Delloway. Lindsay Duncan’s performance is a masterful study in the power of restrained anger as she rolls-off a string of expletives without breaking the rhythm of her speech to show she is in complete control.

Foxtrot is also a study in escalating anxiety and emotional desperation as Badger and Fox’s relationship becomes more fractious as their attempts to pacify an intentionally erratic Ezra become increasingly fervid.

These first 20 minutes or so are some of the most intense, exhilarating and well-crafted writing the series has ever seen, driven by three powerful performances from Piper (once again playing a prostitute), Sanders and Wishaw, but then it seems to run out of time.

The ending feels rushed and not fully formed as the girls make a hasty escape. Fox blurts out something alluding to past abuse that is meant to explain why she pretends to be a boy but which lacks the poignancy and care to be effective, as the plot careens towards an obvious character twist that betrays the steady, considered build-up of the first 20 minutes.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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Superhero movies are such big business today that it can be easy to forget just how ground-breaking Bryan Singer’s X-Men was in 2000. The genre was a dying beast in the 90s, buried under the disappointment of 1996’s Batman and Robin and its pointy plastic nipples. Then Singer came along with a breath-taking mix of blockbuster thrills and real world issues, paving the way for Marvel and Christopher Nolan’s Batman to dominate the box office for over a decade.

Yet, while other franchises flourished, the X-Men floundered with the substandard The Last Stand and two equally lacklustre Wolverine spin-offs to the point it required a face-lift of its own with First Class, a reboot that gave the series fresh impetus by tackling the well-known characters in their younger days. It’s fitting then, for a franchise that has brought back and been brought back from the brink, that its best film yet should be all about the power of redemption.

Using Chris Clairemont’s popular comic as a template, Days acts as a sequel to both The Last Stand and First Class, uniting the casts of both films by splitting the plot into two timelines.

In a near future that looks like a cross between The Terminator and Tron with its dark desolation, destructive robots and neon lighting, the X-Men we all know and love from the first three movies – including Halle Berry’s Storm, Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X – are all but wiped out under the threat of the Sentinels, shape-shifting robots built to eradicate mutants from the world.

Their only hope of survival is to zap Wolverine’s (Jackman) consciousness into his younger self in 1973 to reunite Charles Xavier and Magneto (Fassbender) at a time when they “couldn’t be further apart” in order to stop Mystique from executing the assassination that triggers the disasters of the future.

As with First Class, the plot of Days is structured around key historical moments, such as the assassination of JFK and the end of the Vietnam war, using the latter as the driving force behind the Sentinel programme as its creator Bolivar Trask plays on the fear that America will once again underestimate its enemy after the mutants’ existence becomes public knowledge.

With two timelines and a heap of characters to juggle, it would be easy for Singer to get bogged down in what McAvoy’s Xavier dubs “future shite”. He avoids this by keeping the pace light and lively, switching between timelines and continents as the X-Men’s mission takes them across the globe.

Singer is also mightily ambitious with his action, seemingly aiming to outdo anything seen in previous movies. This leads to many exhilarating and inventive set-pieces with Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) super-speedy raid on the Pentagon and Magneto landing a baseball arena on the White House lawn notable highlights.

The risk of the plot becoming convoluted is further downplayed by Singer focusing the action on the key quartet of Fassbender, McAvoy, Jackman and Lawrence.

McAvoy’s Xavier is a very different beast to the charming playboy of First Class, now consumed with pain following his abandonment by Magneto and Mystique, losing his cognitive power and by extension his ability to see the good in others in the process.

Xavier is not the only one on a dark path as Days finds Lawrence’s Mystique on the turning point of becoming the ruthless assassin of X-Men 2. As such, Days is really a story of redemption for Xavier and Mystique, as well as mutant kind, as it seeks to prove the future is not immutable and that people can be returned to the right path.

Days of Future Past may not make the most of its massive cast, Peter Dinklage in particular is wasted as Trask with his motive for hating the mutants left unexplained, but it makes up for it with an affecting story of redemption that nicely compliments the bombastic spectacle of a returning Bryan Singer.

Runtime: 131 Mintues Genre: Superhero/Action Released: 22 May 2014

Director: Bryan Singer Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence

Click here to watch a trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past

Have You Been Watching… In The Flesh?

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When In The Flesh first aired as a three-part miniseries in March of last year it had the odds firmly stacked against it, faced with the unenviable challenge of immediately filling the void left by BBC Three’s cult favourite Being Human, which finished for good the week before.

Luckily, this underdog status worked in its favour as the off-beat series won a fervent fanbase and critical acclaim – not to mention a couple of BAFTAs – for its strange yet alluring mix of zombie horror and British kitchen sink drama.

Now more confidant in its own flesh, series two is a bigger and better beast that continues the first series hallmark of using supernatural scenarios to explore heavy themes of morality, discrimination and politics as Roarton becomes a battle ground of political extremism.

With the Rising now firmly dead and buried, the people of Roarton are starting to move on, establishing a fragile peace and treating the Rising as a historical event to be taught in secondary school. But those most affected by the Rising, both PDS sufferers and the living alike, struggle to adapt and find a place in the new world.

This sense of isolation and rejection is most keenly felt by Luke Newberry’s Kieran Walker, an outcasted teen who committed suicide only to rise again, who still can’t accept who he really is.

We see this in the wrenching scene in which Kieran covers the bathroom mirror with a towel as he removes his covering make-up, unable to see a reflection of his true self. It’s just one of the many touching human moments that writer Dominic Mitchell deftly weaves into the fantastical plot.

Series two starts with Kieran making plans to leave Roarton behind, only for his attempt to escape to Europe to be thwarted as he gets caught up in an escalating feud between the pro-PDS ‘Undead Liberation Army’ and Victus, a right-wing political party that wants to drive the “rotters” out once and for all.

One of the hallmarks of In The Flesh is its ability to split the audience’s loyalties, the writers refusing to paint anyone, living or undead, as an out-and-out hero or villain despite its politically charged themes.

Key to this is taking the time to explore the intricacies of each character, such as Jem Walker’s battle with PTSD and fraught transition from war hero back to schoolgirl, so that the audience can understand how isolation and a loss of purpose can make a person vulnerable to extremist views.

As such In The Flesh is jam-packed with complex characters, not least the series’ two newcomers. Wunmi Mosaku is the most disturbing new addition as psychotic MP Maxene Martin who swoops into Roarton on an anti-PDS sufferer agenda, immediately implementing an oppressive community give back scheme.

More enigmatic still is ULA disciple Simon, played by Hollyoaks’s Emmett Scanlan. At first Simon is all charm and charisma, recruiting a large following to his cause by telling PDS sufferers to stop being “copies of who they used to be”.

However, recent weeks have shown a darker side to Simon as he seethes at the sight of untreated PDS sufferers being kept in filthy cages and uses Amy and Kieran’s feelings for him to bend them to his cause.

Both Maxene and Simon are capable of surprising acts of violence, such as Maxene’s use of an electric drill to despatch one rabid, making their inevitable showdown one of the most anticipated scenes in the final three episodes.

With its unique ability to cut through the sci-fi frippery of the zombie genre to zone-in on affecting human stories, In The Flesh proves it’s worthy of its place among the very best UK dramas.

As its fate hangs in the balance following the announcement of BBC Three’s move online, the final three episodes could be the show’s last hurrah and they promise to be the most explosive ones yet.

TV Review: Mr Sloane

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen Mr Sloane – Episode One

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It’s nothing new for dramas about a mild-mannered man undergoing a mid-life crisis to start with one bad day to ignite a chain of events that will irreversibly change his life. But Jeremy Sloane (Nick Frost), the eponymous hero of the 60s-set series Mr Sloane, which began on Sky Atlantic last night, has been having a bad decade.

In 1969 Sloane at his lowest ebb: his wife has left him, running off to “find herself” in America, he’s been fired from his job of ten years and his best friend has just been awarded the promotion he’s always dreamed of. Sloane even fails to get his own suicide right, the ceiling collapsing under his own weight as he tries to hang himself. What’s more, he’s stuck living in Watford, a place where the 60s never swung, especially for Sloane who’d rather it was still 1961.

The plot frequently flashes back to the start of the decade when Sloane first fell in love with his soon-to-be-wife Janet (Olivia Coleman, obviously brilliant) and was starting to climb the career ladder at work, and he and his friends were filled with hope for the future. “The 60s are gonna be our decade, my son. I can feel,” as his best friend Ross (Peter Serafinowicz) optimistically says.

The flashback device is used well to keep up the pace and provide an escape from the relative melancholy of Sloane’s later life, as well as informing the depths of his depression by giving background into how Sloane’s life went so wrong.

With his life falling apart, Sloane retreats down the pub hoping to find solace with his childhood friends, including the aforementioned glib and greasy Ross, but without success.

Instead he finds it in the form of Robin (Ophelia Lovibond), a tie-dye whirlwind of bonhomie from San Francisco who bursts into Sloane’s beige world via a chance encounter at a DIY store and offers him the chance to grab one last piece of the swinging 60s before it’s too late.

Nick Frost nails it as the kind but quietly frustrated Jeremy Sloane, always making him loveable even when he’s causing his own problems, such as arriving on his first day as a supply teacher nursing a massive beer and chocolate cake hangover.

The show is also perfectly shaped, lacing a bittersweet story with a dark wit (Slone confessing his failed suicide to a new pupil) and nostalgic romance to build a delicate portrait of a man collapsing under the weight of his own expectations.

An hour-long runtime may be stretching the plot too far, however, with comedy almost always better when delivered at pace. It’s not until the final quarter that Sloane finally meets Robin and begins to affect a change in his life, which is far more enjoyable and engaging, after too much time has been given over to setting up Sloane’s dismal life and backstory.

That is but a minor quibble in what is an otherwise brilliant comedy-drama. Mr Sloane offers a nuanced story of heartache, humour and broken expectations; perfectly paced and wonderfully performed, and really rather lovely.

Click here to watch a clip from Mr Sloane

 

 

TV Review: Penny Dreadful – Episode One

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Right now horror is big business in television. American paid-for cable channels such as HBO, Showcase and Cinemax are always keen to distance themselves from the family-friendly offerings of networks, and do so by splashing buckets of blood, nudity and other morally dubious actions across our screens with the likes of Hannibal and Game of Thrones.

Yet this is by no means a saturated market and last night Sky Atlantic welcomed a new addition to the genre with Penny Dreadful, a savage gothic romp that’s fantastically ghoulish.

Created by John Logan and executive produced by his Skyfall director Sam Mendes, this eight-part series hovers between American Horror Story and Ripper Street in its Victorian London setting. In 1891, the gloomy, cumbersome streets are strewn with bloody entrails and dismembered body parts as the police investigate a series of gruesome murders.

Yet intrepid explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his boggle-eyed companion Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) see something darker at work and embark on a recruitment drive for a man of “great violence and hidden depths” to explore the demi-monde – “a half world between what we know and what we fear” – or, put another way, to fight-off hordes of immortal ghouls.

They find such a man working as a gunslinger in a Wild West-themed travelling show, and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) acts as the audience’s eyes in this opening episode as he is lured into an unfamiliar world of terrible wonders.

All three main characters are well-cast with former Bond-girl Eva Green, fresh from her film stealing turn in 300: Rise of an Empire, once again the most beguiling character on screen as Ives, using her piercing stare to easily get the measure of Chandler: “Your eye is steady buy your left hand tremors. That’s the drink.”

Each character comes with their own murky past and with no one truly who they appear to be there’s a fair amount of antagonism amongst the team. Logan deftly uses this to layer their exchanges with an uneasy tension, as if the characters are constantly sizing each other up, which makes the dialogue scenes often more gripping than the monster-slaying action.

Penny Dreadful is filmed in Dracula writer Bram Stoker’s home-town of Dublin, but that’s far from the only literary reference here with each plot weaving in many of gothic fiction’s most frightening creations.

This week it’s Victor Frankenstein, a jittery young anatomist who helps Murray uncover the mysterious hieroglyphs hidden beneath a dead vampire’s skin and has a corpse wired-up to one of those new-fangled electricity generators he was so excited about.

The emergence of Frankenstein’s monster at the end of this episode works as a neat parallel for the state of the main characters: like the monster they’re broken creatures in an unfamiliar world, crudely stitched back together to resemble a barely functioning human. Their mission to take-on the demi-monde can be seen as the first step in confronting their darkest fears and overcoming the troubles of their past.

While the gore, creepy monsters and tense dialogue are all well and good, this first episode does lack a compelling narrative to really grab the audience. Too much time is spent setting up the characters and teasing potential mysteries rather than getting to the point, and it’s almost half an hour in before we’re told about Murray’s mission to find his daughter. 

In all, though, Penny Dreadful delivers plenty of intriguing mysteries and beguiling performances for its stellar cast, and offers simple escapism with its gory, violent setting and fantastical characters. And that’s exactly what a show like Penny Dreadful should do. 

Click here to watch the trailer for Penny Dreadful – Episode One

Godzilla (2014)

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More than 15 years on from Roland Emmerich’s misguided ‘reimagining’, the disappointment of Godzilla (1998) still rankles with critics and die-hard fans displeased with the 2012-director’s radical re-working of the monster’s origins.

There’s a lot of pressure, then, on Gareth Edwards to not just prove himself away from the scarcer resources and shoestring budget of his debut indie-hit Monsters, but also to appease the daikaiju faithful. Unfortunately, while parts of Edwards’ Godzilla thrill, an unexpected lack of attention to character and tone pretty much nukes this sullen reboot.

It starts out well with a taut meltdown at the Janjira nuclear power plant that kills the wife of Bryan Cranston’s American physicist Joe after he failed to avert the disaster. Not only is this sequence superbly shot by Edwards, but Cranston delivers a powerful performance that makes the broken farewell to his wife via walkie-talkie so gut-wrenching.

15 years later, the cause of the meltdown has been covered up as an earthquake and Joe has become “the American maniac” he was trying to avoid, desperately driven to find the truth about what really happened that day even when it threatens to destroy his relationship with his won, Ford (Taylor-Johnson).

This first half is where the film is strongest with Cranston’s character incorporating a compelling human story into a smart conspiracy that ties the monster attacks to real-world natural disasters. It’s only when Joe steps aside and his son takes over that things start to fall apart.

Ford has no discernable character arc or motivation other than being an out-of-the-box soldier committed to doing his duty, and Elizabeth Olsen’s considerable talent is foolishly wasted as his wife who merely sits at home waiting to be rescued.

This lack of character development sees the focus shift to the battle of nature between Godzilla and the nuclear-power-hungry MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), while the humans watch from the side-lines and the audience wonders why they’re even there at all.

Yet Edwards handles directing the visual spectacle well, delivering numerous entertaining set-pieces. The sequence from the trailer in which soldiers trail red smoke as they sky-dive above the monster is still incredibly cool and a scene where Ford tracks a feeding MUTO along a rickety rail bridge can be unbearably tense.

Edwards also succeeds in making the audience care about Godzilla. At 350 feet tall, this is easily the biggest monster in the canon and his description as “a power to restore balance” to nature pushes him into the position of the film’s hero as he takes on the more destructive MUTOs. You’ll find you are quickly rooting for Godzilla as the final, city-pummelling showdown ensues, which thankfully provides a powerful ending that looked unlikely after the earlier eradication of the human story angle.

Godzilla’s only other problem is that its tone is too sullen for its own good. Edwards does well to take inspiration from Jaws in building a terrifying off-screen presence by delaying a complete view of Godzilla, but this foreboding tone never quite matches up with the childish thrill of watching to radioactive monsters square-off on the Las Vegas Strip.

It’s this awkward melange of moody atmosphere and fantastical fire-breathing reptiles coupled with a loss of human emotion that stops Godzilla being the return to form dedicated fans desperately wanted it to be. 

Runtime: 123 Minutes         Genre: Action/Sci-fi   Released: 15 May 2014

Director: Gareth Edwards    Writer: Max Borenstein

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe

Click here to watch the trailer for Godzilla (2014)

TV Review: Suits – Series One to Three

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Let’s start with the admittedly far-fetched set up. Slick New York lawyer Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), an “arrogant, self-absorbed, blowhard” as his sassy assistant Donna describes him, is cajoled into hiring a new associate for his law firm but is distinctly unimpressed with the sea of suited, blank-faced Harvard drones presented to him for interview. Mike (Patrick J. Adams), meanwhile, is a genius-level college dropout who ekes out a living by taking the LSATS test for suited, blank-faced Harvard drones and is resigned to never realising his dream of becoming a lawyer.

That is until, as is the way with American TV, an absurd twist of fate throws these two polar opposites together to make legal magic. When a drug deal goes awry, a fleeing Mike stumbles into Harvey’s office and so impresses him with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the law that he unexpectedly wins the job – despite not having a Harvard law degree. Or any degree for that matter.

Fortunately, they’re the perfect fit for each other: Mike’s naiveté and sympathy towards his clients dovetailing nicely with Harvey’s disconnected, gung-ho approach to cases. Their snappy chemistry and punchy back and forth is the cornerstone of the show, their witty exchanges giving Suits a unique rhythm to set it apart from other, courtroom obsessed, legal dramas.

Aside from the strain keeping Mike’s lack of qualifications secret has on his and Harvey’s relationships, much of the tension comes in the form of pitting Mike’s impractical kindness against the ruthless nature of his Pearson Hardman colleagues. In this world, corporate lawyers are cold-blooded sharks who are unafraid of hiring a sneaky private investigator to dig up dirty secrets or of just plain old lying to their opponents in order to win, something which is at odds with Mike’s relatively keen sense of right and wrong (he is, after all, a fraud and former drug dealer).

Series one follows a case of the week format as Mike gets to grips with the world of corporate law, but subsequent series have opted for a serialised structure featuring storylines that run across the series’ duration. Series two, for instance, sees an ousted senior partner return to the firm to wreak havoc using his oily, disingenuous charms. While most episodes often risk straying into melodrama territory – every ad break is seemingly preceded by an ominously ambiguous threat or someone dramatically storming out of the room – the show is otherwise smartly written, flawlessly switching between taut legal wrangles and snappy exchanges to maintain a breezy tempo.

It’s also well acted by a first-rate supporting cast with a strong female presence. Gina Torres towers over the rest of her colleagues as no-nonsense, fiercely driven managing partner Jessica, while Sarah Rafferty frequently shines as Harvey’s amusingly capable assistant Donna, who’s so on the ball she can tell her boss’s mood by the colour of his shirt and the way he positions his tie.

The actor having the most fun, however, is Rick Hoffman as the impetuous Lewis Litt. Starting out as a grouchy junior partner, Litt has gradually morphed into a loveable tyrant who frequently steals the best lines: “My spider parts are tingling.” His arcane tastes (he has an inexplicable love for those of a feline persuasion) and subtle air of a lonely, misunderstood man longing for respect have turned him into a firm fan’s favourite complete with his own catchphrase: “You just got Litt up.”

Airing Thursday nights on Dave in the UK, Suits is a fabulously fast-paced legal drama spliced with a punchy wit, usually delivered by its two excellent leads, that manages to be gripping and engaging despite almost never setting foot inside a courtroom. Series four can’t come soon enough.

Click here to watch the trailer for Suits