The Flash: Pilot – TV Review

The geek-chic genre has been slowly forcing its way into the cultural mainstream in the past few years. Once the domain of pasty teens who compensated for a lack of female attention by building up ‘impressive’ comic-book collections, the phenomenal success of The Big Bang Theory has ensured that geeking-out is now for everyone and not just the forgotten few.

Naturally, most networks have sought to cash-in on this burgeoning trend with shows aimed specifically at geek culture – most obviously, Scorpion and HBO’s Silicon Valley. The CW has fared best in this genre with comic-book adaptation Arrow proving a resounding success, rewarding those of us who endured ten long, melodramatic years of Smallville.

That same network is responsible for The Flash (Tuesday, Sky 1, 8pm), another DC adaptation spun-off from the Arrow series that seems to be tailor-made for the geeks of this world with its proudly sci-fi bent and super-nerdy protagonist.

Clearly aping the most recent Spiderman films, this uneven pilot zips through a potted origin story that introduces Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a brilliant but socially awkward forensic genius working for the Central City Police Department whose obsession with his mother’s strange murder makes him an outcast among his peers.

After an archetypical lab accident, which involves a malfunctioning particle accelerator and a fortuitously timed lightening storm, leaves him in a coma for nine months, Barry wakes to discover he can move at superhuman speeds and resolves to use his new powers to save the less fortunate.

The similarities with Marvel’s Spidey-friend don’t end there, though, with Grant Gustin also looking the spitting image of Peter Parker, and while his gawky persona is a major divergence from the source comics, it’s a move that works in the show’s favour.

Many of today’s popular heroes resemble the arrogant jocks we geeks despised during our school days, but by reworking Barry into a humble underdog who lacks the self-belief to become a hero the writers have given their show a unique niche and made their hero more relatable.

Gustin, too, is excellently cast in the role, feeling sweetly endearing in his attempts to cope with the literal shock to his lifestyle, as well as showcasing his emotional range in a weepy heart-to-heart with his wrongly-incarcerated father.

However, it’s nigh-on impossible to ignore the sense that we’ve seen this plot before. Barry’s confidence is shaken by a first failed attempt to tackle a villain, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and a cameoing Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) build him back up with rousing speeches, and The Flash arrives back just in time to save the day. It’s predictably paint-by-numbers, readily ticking off every origin-story-trope going and sapping all the drama out of the plot.

To a certain extent this is understandable in a pilot, with the writers almost duty-bound to follow the origin story as detailed in the comics, but more worrying is its failure to get to grips with its supporting characters.

Chad Rock barely registers as evil “metahuman” Clyde Mardon, aka Weather Wizard, with his crimes and silly god-complex lacking motivation; he really exists for the purpose of giving The Flash someone to defeat, and the show will need to find more formidable foes if it is to progress.

The rest of the cast are also frustratingly one-dimensional, with writers Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns committing the cardinal sin of having their characters vocalize their feelings and backstories rather than hinting them in the visuals.

Still, there’s a lot of potential in the relationships established here to suggest the series can capture the same soapy character drama that works so well in Arrow. Barry’s sparky chemistry with Danielle Panabaker’s frosty Caitlin Snow and his fractious relationship with surrogate father Detective Joe West (Jesse Martin), also father to Barry’s impossibly attractive love interest Iris, both show particular promise.

The biggest plus from last night’s episode was the quality of the special effects, The worry with sci-fi shows like this is that they’re reliant on expensive CGI that often can’t match the standards seen on the big screen, but director David Nutter does great work here making The Flash’s super-speedy powers look both cool and realistic with some clever use of speed-ramping.

It may not be the perfect start, but then, what pilot is? What’s more important is that there’s plenty of potential in this nascent series, from Gustin’s warm performance to the surprisingly well-realised effects, to suggest that The Flash can keep pace with every other heavy-hitter in this busy genre.

Yet more good news in what is fast-becoming the season of the geek.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Flash

Is Homeland Suffering From Performance Anxiety?

One of my favourite films growing up was There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble. It’s not a great movie by any measure – although it does feature early performances from some of the best actors working today – but I was young, football mad and I identified with the main character.

Released in 2000, the film centred on its eponymous hero, a shy, socially-inept fifteen-year-old who dreamed of playing football for Manchester City. Although he showed great potential when practicing on his own, whenever he played in front of a crowd he’d invariably loose his confidence and start treating the football as though it was a flaming bag of excrement that he needed to get rid of as quickly and inelegantly as humanly possible.

The reason this story resonated with me was because I too struggled to be myself in public. For some reason even the most mundane of social interactions could transform me into a quivering mass of flailing limbs and near-silent utterances. Why this happened I’m not sure, at some point I just became painfully aware of other people’s perception of my actions. Once I realised this it became harder to control and turned into a self-perpetuating cycle: the more I tried not to be anxious, the more I made it worse.

While I eventually grew out of this problem, the psychology behind social and performance anxiety has continued to fascinate me, and I’m beginning to think there may be a TV equivalent. I think Homeland suffers from this more than most.

When it debuted in late 2011, the Showtime political-thriller-cum-psychological-drama was the most lauded show on TV. Homeland felt like it was at the forefront of the war on terror, being the first to bring the threat to America’s shores with its dangerous game of cat and mouse between bi-polar CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, a former prisoner of war who may or may not have been turned by the enemy.

The plots were loaded with intrigue and drama as our alliances fluctuated on a weekly basis, and the show was rightly adored by critics and viewers alike, scoring several awards and a slew of high profile fans – including POTUS himself, Barack Obama.

The expectation was that Homeland would go on to join the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. However, what followed was two seasons of creative missteps as the writers focused on the doomed romance of Carrie and Brody and tried to pad out an increasingly threadbare plot by detailing the trite misadventures of Dana Brody – surely the most despised fictional teen since this guy.

It felt like the show was treading water, desperately flinging every idea into the water in the hope that it would float, and many fans would perhaps have been happy to see the show sink without a trace after the season three finale when Carrie brought the story to a close by scribbling a star on the CIA’s memorial wall to commemorate the late Nicholas Brody.

But, of course, that was never going to happen. The fact remains that Homeland is still Showtime’s biggest ratings success and will ultimately continue until that stops being the case, leaving the writers with no choice but to attempt a reboot in season four.

And it worked, too, for a short time at least. The first episode of this season, in which Carrie, newly installed as the CIA’s station manager in Kabul, oversees a botched drone strike that kills over 40 civilians, was a taut, breathless return to form for the series. But then came episode two to snuff out the rejuvenated spark before it had begun with a soporific return to Langley that served only to turn the audience against Carrie thanks to a misjudged attempt to drown her baby.

This sums up the show now: occasionally brilliant, but mostly not. And in truth it has been a long time since Homeland was actually exciting to watch.

This is where performance anxiety comes in. A show as big as Homeland naturally garners a lot of media attention, with each season preceded by a raft of articles (much like this one) asking if this will be the year the show gets back its mojo. It must be impossible for the writers to ignore such constant scrutiny and that seems to show in their writing. There’s a crushing self-awareness to the scripts that suggests the writers are trying hard to rediscover what made the show great but just can’t quite get it right. And like all bouts of performance anxiety, this awareness becomes a self-defeating cycle that is impossible to escape.

It’s possible that, like me, the show will grow out of its slump, working away at the kinks until it hits its stride again. But, barring a complete recast and change of writing staff, that seems unlikely. More probable is that the show will continue until its audience finally starts to dwindle and Showtime decides to pull the plug. An ignominious end for a once impervious show.

Then again, maybe the writers will stumble across a kindly old lady who sells magic football boots that cure anxiety. It worked for Jimmy Grimble, after all.

Fury – Film Review

“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” battle-hardened sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier warns a weak-willed recruit in David Ayer’s rampaging tank epic, Fury. He’s not kidding, too. Ever since Steven Spielberg rewrote the rule book with Saving Private Ryan, gritty realism has been the de facto style for depicting the horrors of war in cinema – one Tarantino-style spaghetti-western aside.

Yet nothing that has been before can adequately prepare you for the visceral shocks Ayer serves up here, opening his film with an enemy soldier being thrown from his horse and pierced through the skull with bloody relish, and never letting up from there on in.

Ayer’s aim with Fury is to relentlessly scrape away any jingoist notions of heroism viewers may have of war by capturing the dehumanising carnage the allied troops have to endure as they make one last desperate and determined push across war-torn Berlin in 1945.

The final slog to victory is unbearably grim, taking in a rolling collection of charred battlefields, children strung up for “cowardice”, bodies crushed into dirt by marching squaddies, and many other haunting images that further heighten the sense of despair.

Recalling Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot in its confined setting and heavy tone, Ayer centres the action deep within the dark, unforgiving belly of a Sherman tank – nicknamed Fury. The End of Watch-director drops us straight into the rotten heart of combat with Fury’s breathlessly tense battle sequences evoking a sweaty and desperate atmosphere that is so palpably claustrophobic it will often leave you fighting for air.

We’re forced to bare witness to this living nightmare through the eyes of rookie recruit Norm Ellison (Lerman), a pencil-pushing desk clerk who is dragged into the conflict to replace a recently killed gunner aboard Fury.

Norman’s arc is reminiscent of Ayer’s corrupt-cop drama Training Day as he comes under the charge of Brad Pitt’s embittered war veteran, Wardaddy. A seasoned fighter who has already dragged his crew across North Africa and France, Wardaddy sets about transforming his newbie gunner into the soulless killer he’ll need to become in order to survive by subjecting Norman to a rigorous cycle of physical abuse and ritual humiliation. One shocking scene in particular sees Pitt’s character shove a pistol into Norman’s hand and force him to execute a German prisoner of war as part of a harrowing rite of passage.

As much as it’s about real and unsettling violence, though, Fury is often at its most powerful and affecting when it takes respite from all the fighting to develop its two main characters. A crucial sequence finds Wardaddy and Norman taking a break in the home of two German women only for their fellow tank operatives – ‘Bible’ (LaBeouf), ‘Gordo’ (Peña) and Grady (Bernthal) – to spoil the moment with their ignoble desires.

It’s a pivotal scene in the evolution of Lerman’s character – Norman will never be the same again after leaving the town – and yet it is still soaked in the same uneasy tension as the numerous battle scenes.

It’s really only in the final third that Fury falters as Ayer erroneously resorts to the usual genre tropes he spent much of the film subverting in order to create an optimistic ending. The idea of Wardaddy and his troops preparing to go out in a hail of bullets and glory sits awkwardly with the story’s anti-heroism themes, but the climax is no less satisfying for it as Ayer delivers one final no-holds-barred showdown.

Fury may not carry the dramatic weight of some of the more ‘Oscar-worthy’ war films around, but in terms of viscerally harrowing realism there really is nothing better.

Run time: 134 mins; Genre: War Drama; Released: 22 October 2014

Director: David Ayer; Screenwriter: David Ayer;

Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña

Click here to watch the trailer Fury

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night – TV Review

With this being the penultimate episode of the series, you may have expected In the Forest of the Night to feature something of a turning point or revelation to raise anticipation for the impending finale. But nope, there’s nothing of the sort as Clara’s love triangle and the Promised Land arc remaining frustratingly under wraps. In its place is a turgid standalone episode that has challenging ideas but can’t combine them into an interesting story.

Titled after William Blake’s poem The Tyger, this week’s “adventure” sees Clara, Danny and a gang of “gifted” Coal Hill pupils waking up to discover that a giant forest (beautifully realised by director Sheree Folkson) has sprouted throughout London, and indeed the world, overnight.

Meanwhile, The Doctor happens upon Meabh, a frightened little girl in a red hood who is lost in the woods and may hold the secret to unlocking this arboreal mystery.

Written by children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce, this episode is rife with fairytale references from Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, but it also feels like an homage to the work of Roald Dahl with its cast of snarky kids who prove themselves to be much cleverer than the adults give them credit for.

Boyce also refuses to talk down to the show’s young audience, openly tackling environmental themes in his not-so-subtle premise. The main threat in this episode is a sudden climatic shift and a massive solar flare that has the power to rip the earth to shreds, and Boyce makes his point clear by having his characters constantly talk about how mankind invariably destroys the things nature puts on Earth to protect us.

There’s also a slightly more understated message about how modern society distrusts people or environments that are abnormal, such as when Danny reacts to Meabh’s odd behaviour by insisting she needs to take her medication.

These are smart ideas and well worth tackling in a wide-reaching show like Doctor Who; unfortunately, Boyce forgets the small matter of actually entertaining his audience as well.

Whilst there are brief moments of humour and a couple of scary scenes (especially the reminder of how easy it would be to wipe out all life on Earth), the majority of the episode feels slow and without purpose, a fault not helped by Boyce’s unconventional step of not having a proper monster to fight.

As the Doctor himself remarks, “What use is intelligence against trees?” and by making nature itself the threat, Boyce has succeeded in making the Doctor powerless to affect the event’s outcome.

In the end it turns out that nature is humanity’s saviour, the trees forming a “planet-sized airbag” to shield Earth from the impending solar flare. It’s a clever idea that neatly wraps up the episode’s thematic storyline; however, watching nature take its course doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting of viewing.

With the Doctor sidelined, Samuel Anderson is given more to do than merely talk on the phone. Danny gets a much bigger role this week, slipping into soldier mode and taking on the responsibility of leading the Coal Hill kids to safety while Clara explores the mystery of the forest. However, there are still times when he feels like nothing more than a nagging boyfriend and it’s hard to see him making a strong third companion – which doesn’t bode well for Clara and Danny’s future on the show.

While a handful of child actors make up the guest cast this week, it’s Abigail Eames who takes centre stage playing Meabh, an emotionally damaged young girl still struggling to come to terms with her sister’s disappearance.

Child actors are notoriously tricky to handle, and though most of the “gifted and talented” group feel like a grating bunch of stereotypes, Eames draws the likeable combination of vulnerability and inner strength that is vitally important to her role.

Ultimately, In the Forest of the Night is an unremarkable standalone that bravely tackles themes of climate change and social acceptance, but just can’t transpose those smart ideas into an engaging plot, all of which leaves the story feeling lost in the woods for most of its runtime.

Next week on Doctor Who Has Clara been possessed or is a more sinister organization behind her torment of the Doctor? We finally get to travel to the Neversphere and see Missy come face to face with the Doctor in the first episode of the two-part finale, Dark Water.

Click here to watch Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night on BBC iPlayer

The Maze Runner – Film Review

As if there weren’t enough Young Adult franchises battling at the box office already, The Maze Runner enters the arena with grand ambitions of wrestling the dystopian fiction crown from The Hunger Games. Based on the obligatory book series by James Dashner, this adaptation offers an entertaining flurry of mystery and frightening action but lacks the thematic heft of its contemporaries to be anything more than a naive pretender.

As in the book, the story follows Thomas (O’Brien), who awakens in a rusty elevator with no memory of who he is, only to find that he has been thrust into a walled-off clearing with a clutch of other boys who have established their own community called The Glades.

Each day the walls around the enclosure open to reveal an intricate maze, into which a team of athletically-strong boys – Runners – enter to search for a way out. Inside they have to navigate a labyrinth of ever-changing walls and creepy biomechanical guards called Grievers, and make it back before the doors close or face a hazardous night trapped in the maze.

Although initially treated as an outsider, Thomas is soon accepted by the majority of the group, until The Glades’ first and only girl (Scodelario) arrives with a message that Thomas may not be who he thinks he is.

It’s an intriguing premise that is strongly evocative of Lord of the Flies with its group of abandoned boys forming a functioning society in a dangerous environment. However, this movie doesn’t posses the thematic weight of William Golding’s classic, which is why it pales in comparison to the genre heavyweights.

The story has little to say about the nature of humanity or modern society, and the basic meaning seems to be that the fight for survival will always bring out the best or worst in a person – a theme that has been done before and in a more successful fashion, most notably in the far superior Hunger Games series.

This is not to say that the plot it boring; it’s not. The mystery of why the maze exists and what purpose the boys serve is a fascinating one, especially because Thomas’s attempts to find a way out often raise more questions than answers. It’s also well-directed by first-timer Wes Ball, whose vision of the maze as a nightmarish jungle of concrete towers and vines is suitably frightening and shot with a claustrophobic tension that will keep you pinned to your seat.

Where the film is weakest is in its development of its two-dimensional characters. You could argue that the boys’ lack of knowledge about their origins acts as a barrier to relating to them, but the real problem is that they show no personal growth as the story progresses. Thomas, for example, does not become a hero, but arrives as a fully-formed leader. Likewise, the rest of the cast never stretch beyond their predefined roles – the reluctant leader, the courageous weakling, the scowling antagonist, etc. – rather like the characters they play who always stick to the job they have been allocated in The Glades.

Such a mixed bag of elements inevitably leads to a confused climax, which thrills with an exhilarating escape attempt but ultimately bungles its final resolution. With no thematic or character-driven arc to wrap up, the story can only peter out with a typically sequel-bating non-ending that has become de rigour in this tiresome genre.

The Maze Runner may have lofty ambitions of being the next big teen franchise, but on the basis of this so-so first instalment, Thomas and his pubescent band of brothers have failed to pass their first test.

Running time: 113 mins; Genre: Dystopian Action; Released: 10 October 2014

Director: Wes Ball; Screenwriters: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, TS Nowlin;

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Click here to watch the trailer for The Maze Runner

Doctor Who: Flatline – TV Review

A question that often emerges whenever a new Doctor is to be chosen is when will we see a female incarnation and, if we did, what would she be like? Flatline gives us a possible answer to this perennial question, as, with Capaldi inconveniently indisposed, Clara has to take the Doctor’s place and devise a plan to save the people of Bristol from an imperceptible foe.

Having overshot London by about 100 miles, the Doctor and Clara arrive in present day Bristol, which has recently suffered a spate of mysterious disappearances, the victim’s of which have been seemingly memorialised in graffiti on a concrete underpass.

After a sluggish opening as the Doctor and Clara try to worm their way into the mystery, the story quickly picks up the pace and it’s not long before the duo are separated – the Doctor trapped in a rapidly shrinking TARDIS, leaving Clara to step into the Time Lord’s Doc Martins and team up with a community service crew to defeat an invading horde of inter-dimensional beings.

One of the overarching themes this year has been Clara’s difficulty in understanding the Doctor’s cold, desensitised attitude to human life and this episode tackles that issue head on by arming Clara with the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper – and even her own companion in the form of sweet, mischievous graffiti artist Rigsy (Joivan Wade) – and giving her the chance to finally see what it’s like to be the Doctor.

As it turns out it isn’t quite as simple as it looks from the sidelines and Clara immediately reverts to ripping pages from the Doctor’s rule book – lying to her followers to give them hope and make them more compliant, and shrugging off any loss of life as a necessary evil for the greater good.

Coleman, as she has all series, is exceptional throughout, trying to remain calm and in control as she’s dragged further out of her depth and understandably losing her perspective as the pressure mounts.

The role reversal also has a revelatory effect on the Doctor. He may be sidelined for the majority of the episode, but Capaldi is a constant presence, barking orders Clara via an earpiece, a device that also gives him a unique perspective to experience how his actions are perceived by others.

Capaldi’s incarnation has spent much of this series mulling his own morality, constantly asking if he is a good man, and the hopelessly unsettled and disappointed expression he pulls as he watches his companion’s triumphant gloating – despite a hefty loss of life – suggests he may have finally found an answer. As he later tells Clara: being an exceptional Doctor has nothing to do with goodness.

Flatline is the second consecutive episode to be written by Jamie Mathieson, who must surely become a regular on the writing staff after delivering another strong story. Mathieson strikes the perfect tone here, balancing humour with scares by playing the role reversal for comedy while delivering another formidable monster.

It seems the writer has a knack for creating spooky antagonists, and while the nameless monsters in this episode lack the initial fright-factor of the Foretold – due to some decisively unsubtle stalking and shonky CGI – once they’re fully realised in all their warped, sinewy glory they become truly terrifying and help to ratchet up the tension in the final act.

It’s disappointing, then, that the climax is far too easy as the Doctor conveniently pops up, eyes and eyebrows ablaze with vengeance, to banish the monsters back from whence they came, ridding Clara of the chance to finish saving the day.

On the whole, though, Flatline is a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi adventure that matches monster movie thrills with thematic weight and continues to build anticipation as we draw ever closer to the impending series finale.

Next week on Doctor Who… Wolves, tigers and a giant fireball are the primary antagonists for the Doctor and his companion as a forest springs up in the middle of London. Is this the end of days for humanity, as we know it? Probably not, but it looks like a lot of fun.

Click here to watch Doctor Who: Flatline on BBC iPlayer

The Knick – TV Review

There’s a touch of the familiar about the premise of Sky Atlantic’s new period medical drama The Knick. A revered British actor playing a brilliant but flawed American surgeon, one who saves lives with his remarkable powers of deduction but can’t save himself from addiction? Where have we heard that before?

But while there may be surface similarities, The Knick is anything but a House surrogate; in fact, with its love of gore, gorgeous production design, and sickeningly tense plotting, the series has more in common with gritty period thrillers like Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street.

Set in 1900, Owen stars as John Thackery, a maverick surgeon with a cocaine problem, who leads the development of pioneering treatments at a fictionalised version of the Knickerbocker Hospital (the “Knick” of the title) in New York.

When his mentor commits suicide for botching an experimental procedure on a pregnant patient, Thackery is promoted to Chief of Surgery. His first task, as he sees it, is to pick a fight with a progressive administrator over the appointment of a black doctor, which places the installation of electricity in the hospital under threat. And in between, Thackery has to puzzle over how to save a patient who has developed a post-surgical Bronchial infection.

All ten episodes are directed by Steven Soderbergh, but aside from some inventive use of red and blue hues and a modern synth soundtrack that somehow works well in an antiquated setting, there’s little evidence of his Oscar-winning eye here.

Perhaps his most significant contribution is in securing a budget big enough to fund the exquisite production design on show. Dim gas-lit rooms, gleaming white operating theatres, newly installed trams intersecting with the outmoded horse-drawn cab; Soderbergh’s pre-war New York is a collection of dramatic contrasts that speak of a city in a constant state of flux.

In trying to capture all the social issues that exist in this changing landscape, The Knick actually does itself a disservice. While immigration, gender equality, religion and, most prominently, racial prejudice are all fertile areas for discussion, by trying to explore them all in less than an hour, the writers leave precious little time for us to get to know the main characters on screen.

But if the writers dial back the social commentary and take a more measured approach to unspooling the character drama, there’s a lot to like about this new medical drama. Not least of which is the refreshingly disturbing depiction of surgical scenes.

While most medical procedurals over-dramatize operations with flashy editing and incidental music, Soderbergh takes a stripped back approach, focusing on the surgeons in uncomfortable close-ups as they desperately struggle to save a patient’s life, with only the sound a churning medical equipment for unsettling company.

Not that this would matter if The Knick wasn’t also packed with great performances. Owen is superb in the lead role, taking the familiar trope of a tortured antihero and making it his own by playing up to the vulnerable side of a character who hides his personal troubles long enough to save a life before he crumbles inwardly in a haze of cocaine and grief.

Likewise, Holland excels as Edwards, standing bravely against the racial prejudices of Thackery and the rest of Manhattan, yet unable to walk away from The Knick’s ground breaking research.

There’s an odd rhythm to Method and Madness that speaks of its struggle to find a comfortable ground between tense medical procedural and subtle character study. But if Soderbergh and his writers can resist overloading the plot with social commentary and find a steady pulse, this breathlessly inventive, painfully graphic and wonderfully performed medical drama may soon breath new life into a flat lining genre.