Inside No 9 – TV Review

Inside No 9 returned to BBC Two last night for another six doses of bleak, surreal and stunningly well-crafted half-hour plays from the sharp creative minds behind The League of Gentlemen.

Each week Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s absurdist anthology series throws a clutch of eccentric characters into a different claustrophobic, off-kilter setting where the only constant is the number on the front of the door.

First up, La Couchette, a twisted and obscene comedy of manners set aboard an overnight train travelling from Paris to Bourg-Saint-Maurice that has a hint of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in its stinging twist.

Shearsmith plays Dr Maxwell, a finicky and irritable academic trying desperately to fall asleep before an important job interview with the World Health Organisation the following morning. Alas, any hope of actually getting some much needed shut-eye is thwarted by a motley collection of fellow passengers who seem determined to cause in ruckus inside the carriage.

One of the benefits of the anthology format is that it’s much easier to snare a brilliant cast when there’s no need for them to commit to a full series. In La Couchette, the eclectic mix of passengers are played by some of Britain’s finest performers including Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mark Benton as a squabbling married couple travelling to their daughter’s wedding, Jessica Gunning as a bawdy Australian backpacker and Jack Whitehall playing spectacularly to type as a young toff ‘slumming it’ in second class.

What’s most astonishing, though, is just how well Shearsmith and Pemberton are able to introduce and shape a set of such vividly idiosyncratic characters in only half an hour whilst also composing an intriguing tale that’s full of dark surprises.

The duo also have a remarkable gift for writing physical comedy with much of last night’s episode resembling a classic silent movie that relies less on silly one-liners and more on the subtle nuances within the performances and some clever use of sound to produce the laughs – one particular scene involving a seemingly ceaseless travel alarm elicits the biggest guffaws of the entire episode. Simple, yet extraordinarily effective.

Simply put, Shearsmith and Pemberton are two of the most talented and relentlessly imaginative writers working in Britain today.

It’s great to have them back.

Click here to watch Inside No 9 – ‘La Couchette’ on BBC iPlayer

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Things you might have missed: The Musketeers

Back in March of last year it looked as though Doctor Who had delivered the coup de grâce to The Musketeers – a show originally developed to run inbetween series of the sci-fi classic – by casting Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor and thus stripping the historical action drama of its greatest asset.

The show already had its head on the executioner’s block following an uneven first series that, whilst providing an entertaining romp of swashbuckling period bromance, often felt too frothy and insubstantial for its Sunday night time-slot, with action and plotting that was both inexorably predictable and ham-fistedly cliched. And with Capaldi’s theatrically mercurial Cardinal Richelieu now consigned to the catacombs beneath Paris’s crumbling façade, the show was rapidly running out of reasons for viewers to keep tuning in.

Yet, much like its handsome troupe of leather-clad heroes, just when you thought The Musketeers was backed into an inescapable corner it comes back fighting stronger than ever. The second series has seen the show not only survive but flourish in Capaldi’s absence, expanding on its previously one-dimensional characters and delivering improved subplots that tie together in surprising and exciting ways, whilst the flawless introduction of Marc Warren’s Rochefort – a performance that’s just the right side of pantomime – has ensured Richelieu’s demise has barely been felt.

Much of what was enjoyable about series one remains intact. The rousing humour, the sloshy romance, the camaraderie and companionship of the central quartet – Athos (Tom Burke), Porthos (Howard Charles), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) and Luke Pasqaulino’s D’Artagnan – are present and correct, offering a regular dose of rollicking adventure the like of which is unparalleled on British television.

As the series has matured, Adrian Hodges and his writing team have grown more confident, daring to explore the more challenging themes present in Alexandre Dumas’s original novel that they previously shied away from. Social and political issues like the gulf between the rich and the poor are regularly worked into the plots alongside all the daring do. The series’s sixth episode, Through the Glass Darkly, in which a sadistic astrologer inflicts psychological torment on Louis in revenge for the children he lost to starvation as a result of the king’s indifference, is a magnificent example of how these weightier issues can make for an enthralling adventure.

This deeper narrative complexity has also created more space for the writers to explore their characters with greater depth and nuance, often dedicating entire episodes to uncovering individual characters’s pasts, with both Athos and Porthos having their backstories fleshed out in order to make the Musketeers feel like the real, flawed characters of Dumas’s novel.

That doesn’t just go for the men, either. Save for Maimie McCoy’s deliciously deceptive Milady de Winter, The Musketeers’s female cast members were often overlooked in series one as little more than lusty-eyed damsels in need of saving. The second series has corrected this somewhat by pushing women to the forefront of the action, allowing Tamla Kari’s Constance to finally stand up to her misguided husband and embroiling Alexandra Dowling’s Queen Anne in a battle for throne with the King’s right-hand-man, Rochefort. It appears the ladies aren’t quite so happy to sit on the sidelines and wait for adventure this time around.

What has really made the second series such a vast improvement on the first is its move towards a more serialised format – surely the hallmark of TV drama’s golden age. In its debut series, episodes were often standalone, exposing the repetitive nature of the plots – there are, after all, only so many ways to make sword fights between men in tight leather pants exciting – but the most recent series has been envisioned with a clear endgame in mind.

The writers have spent much of the current 10-episode run threading seemingly unrelated subplots – Milady’s ever-shifting loyalty, the Dauphin’s questionable paternity – and moving them into place so that events are perfectly poised ahead of tomorrow’s finale, which, with the Queen ousted from King Louis’s favour, Aramis imprisoned for treason and Rochefort essentially acting-monarch, should be one heck of an episode.

Far from having its head lopped off by Capaldi’s surprise departure, The Musketeers has taken the setback in its stride and reemerged a darker, more complex piece of work. And that makes this thrilling period romp just that little bit more satisfying.

Click here to watch the second series of The Musketeers on BBC iPlayer

The Gunman – Film Review

Does Sean Penn think his career is flagging?

Typically, a middle-aged star only agrees to take part in an over-50s action movie because he thinks his career is on the wane and he needs a sure-fire hit to reignite it.

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, Keanu Reeves in John Wick and, of course, Liam Neeson in Taken and its myriad knock-offs are all evidence of fading stars finding a new lease of life playing the crumbling older leading man.

Yet, Penn is still very much a man in demand with a recent slate of movies that include awards-worthy turns in gay rights biopic Milk, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hardly the work of an actor whose best years are behind him, is it?

Which begs the the question of what on earth possessed him to agree to not only lead, but also co-write The Gunman, a muddled misfire of a conspiracy thriller that criminally wastes its high-calibre cast.

Penn actually equips himself surprisingly well as Jim Terrier, an ex-soldier working as private security for NGOs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, executing brutal fist-fights and explosive shootouts with a gritty and gruff style that suggests he would’ve made an excellent Bond prior to Daniel Craig’s casting.

The plot sees Terrier forced to flee the continent after assassinating the country’s mining minster, leaving behind his beloved girlfriend, Annie (Trinca). He resurfaces in the Congo eight years later when an attempt on his life forces him out of hiding to confront his past and uncover a wide-reaching conspiracy.

The trouble with Penn’s Terrier is that he is an almost totally unredeemable character, whose actions come across as those of a desperate man too afraid to face the consequences of the terrible things he has done for his own personal gain. It’s only thanks to the remarkable pathos that Penn manages to eke out of the role that Terrier appears as the marginally preferable winner when compared to all the other despicable shits who make up the remainder of the cast.

But by far The Gunman’s biggest problem is that it has muddled ideas about what it wants to be. There’s potential for a probing political drama with the film’s third world setting suggesting an attempt to tackle the role of western corporations in humanitarian projects, but aside from the two montages of grainy news footage that bookend the film, these issues are barely touched upon.

Director Pierre Morel also tries to structure the story like a scathing conspiracy thriller in the mould of Three Days of the Condor, but the twists and red herrings are frankly dull and far too predictable to hold any interest, while any notion of creating a high-octane action movie is resoundingly undermined by hollow and mechanical action sequences that resemble scenes picked up off the cutting room floor of Casino Royale.

This turgid and cumbersome plot leaves little room for the excellent supporting cast to make an impact, with the likes of Bardem, Rylance and Ray Winstone hamming it up to make the most of their limited screen time. Bardem, especially, is wasted in the role of potential conspirator and Terrier’s love rival, spending all of his brief scenes so theatrically drunk that it’s impossible to buy into him as a credible red herring.

Ultimately, only Penn can claim to come out of this slick but shallow film with any credit, managing to instil his character with purpose and pathos when his director only wants to marvel at his impressive physique. Which only makes you wonder all the more about why he chose to stoop this low in the first place?

Run time: 115 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 20 March 2015

Director: Pierre Morel; Screenwriter: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn;

Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca

Click here to watch the trailer for The Gunman

The Many, many Movies of Mark Millar

Fast becoming an industry all of his very own, comic-book supremo Mark Millar announced this week that he has sold yet another of his original works into screen development with 2014’s Chrononauts.

Billed as “a bromance for the ages”, Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy’s sci-fi adventure tells the story of the first scientific duo to travel back through time and how everything goes wrong in the process, and will be produced by Fast and Furious head-honcho Chris Morgan for Universal.

It’s merely the latest in a seemingly ever-expanding slate of movie adaptations for the man behind R-Rated cult hits like Kick-Ass, Kingsman and Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, and with so many properties in various stages of development it can be near impossible to keep track of them all.

Here, then, is a handy list of the many, many movies of Mark Millar currently creeping their way to a screen near you.

Fantastic Four

Due here in August with a sequel already penciled in for 2017, Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot of the superhero franchise is at least partly inspired by Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four series, which modernised the comic’s origin story to focus on a much younger team of scientists who gain their powers during a malfunctioned tele-porter experiment.

Even with less than five months to go until its release, very little is known about Trank’s vision for the franchise, so it’s hard to know how close Simon Kinberg’s script will stick to Millar’s original template. However, based on the elliptical trailer released earlier in the year, it looks pretty certain that the film will be set in a darker, more grounded world that pays all due attention to the emotional impact the transformation has on our heroes. And that should come as blessed relief to anyone who endured both of Tim Story’s goofy and juvenile efforts in the mid-noughties.

Captain America: Civil War

Civil War, a huge Marvel crossover storyline written by Millar and Steve McNiven, will form the basis of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Winter Soldier follow-up, which promises to pit Chris Evans’s star-spangled Avenger against Robert Downey Jr.’s snark-tastic billionaire Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, when the US government passes a Superhero Registration Act designed to bring all super-powered characters under official regulation.

This marks the first time one of the principal Avengers will crossover into another’s individual franchise (not counting Cap’s brief but memorable cameo in Thor: Dark World), giving you some idea as to the scale of Marvel’s expanding ambitions post-Age of Ultron whilst also promising an intriguing turn of character for Jr.’s Stark.

And as if the movie wasn’t already stuffed with enough superhuman force to fell a particularly grumpy Bruce Banner, Marvel’s newly announced partnership with Sony means we’re also likely to see the first appearance of a re-cast Spiderman, as everyone’s favourite web-slinger gets caught up in the middle of these two warring behemoths. May 6th, 2016 can’t come soon enough.

Nemesis

“What if Batman was the Joker?” That’s the question Millar and Steve McNiven controversially asked in their 2010 limited-run series, Nemesis – which should tell you all you need to know about the project.

Okay, I’ll give you a little more. The story centres on a well-trained super-villain who uses his immense wealth to terrorise the world and the life of Chief Inspector Blake Morrow, whom he ostensibly blames for the suicide of his cruel father.

Graphic and gruesome, Nemesis traverses the same darkly subversive terrain as Kick-Ass and The Secret Service, which means the resultant film is likely to be more of a cult hit than a box office smash. However, Millar himself was extraordinarily effusive in his praise of Joe and Matthew Carnaghan’s script, calling it one of the most “powerful and relentless” he’d ever read, which suggest we could be in for something truly special.

With the script now complete, hopefully it won’t be too long before the film hits the multiplexes and we can finally judge its quality for ourselves.

Kindergarten Heroes

While he may be best known for works containing lashings of blood, ultra-violence and pre-pubescent swearing, you may be surprised to know that Millar also has a softer side. It’s this cuddly alter-ego that is given a thorough airing in Kindergarten Heroes, a Pixar-esque tale co-written with Curtis Tiegs that’s set in the kindergarten where all our favourite superheroes leave their offspring when they head off on dangerous adventures.

Carter Blanch, a screenwriter with a burgeoning reputation thanks to boasting the likes of a new Spy Hunter film and Dreamworks’s time-travelling adventure Glimmer on his slate, will crank out the script for Fox under Simon Kinberg’s supervision, with the studio hoping to spawn a family-friendly franchise to rival that of How to Train Your Dragon and Big Hero 6. Whether their film can match the poignancy and wrenching emotional depth of those two heavy-weights, however, remains to be seen.

Superior

Picked up in April last year by 20th Century Fox, for whom Millar serves as creative consultant, this seven-issue Icon series, about a 12 year-old boy with multiple sclerosis who is transformed into his idolised superhero by a demonic monkey named Ormon (you can make these things up, as it turns out), will be overseen by Kick-Ass and Kingsman producer Matthew Vaughn, though don’t expect the director to helm the project himself just yet, as the studio is still searching for the right screenwriter to tackle the job.

MPH

Just in case you thought all of Millar’s upcoming projects were strictly Marvel/Fox affairs, this story of a young man, Roscoe Rodrigues, who sees the chance to escape his poverty-stricken existence when he discovers a new drug that will give him the ability to travel at light-speed was snapped up by Transformers: Age of Extinction producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura last year.

While the core idea of a double-crossed drug runner gaining super-human powers via a nifty designer drug has already been explored in Luc Besson’s mind-bending thriller Lucy, Millar’s comic has an interesting take on the pursuit of the American Dream and plenty of opportunities to create some eye-popping visuals, with Rodrigues’s speed depicted in a Quicksilver-esque slow-motion style, which could prove very enticing when Bonaventura starts shopping the project around studios later this year.

Starlight

A space-set adventure described by Millar as “Flash Gordon meets The Dark Knight Returns”, this six-issue miniseries centres on a widowed former space hero who is dragged back into one last adventure when his old rocket ship suddenly reappears.

There’s been very little in the way of movement on this one since Fox picked up the rights last year, with news of a director, screenwriter or casting as yet unannounced, but expect that to change rapidly if any of the above releases makes a big splash at the box office.

Raised by Wolves – TV Review

Finally, four years after Channel 4’s superbly crude The Inbetweeners ended (in its superior TV form, anyway), British teenagers have another frank, intelligent and genuinely funny comedy to get excited about.

Following hot on the heels of Sharon Horgan’s charmingly subversive Catastrophe, Raised by Wolves is a similarly filthy, fearless, taboo-rattling sitcom about flawed women talking openly, and hilariously, about their experiences in sex, love and life in general.

Written by TV critic turned best-selling author Caitlin Moran and her sister Caroline (Caz), the series is a loose autobiographical account of their youth spent on a Wolverhampton council estate with their six siblings (reduced to three here for the sake of narrative coherency) and unconventional mother.

Our heroines, Germaine and Aretha, are based on the writers’ teenage selves. Whimsical, noisy Germaine is the teenage Caitlin, eccentrically dressed in a tartan dressing gown and untamed beehive like a charity shop Amy Winehouse and unapologetically horny for one of the local chavs. Her sister, Aretha, based on Caz, on the other hand, is an introverted and dead-pan bookworm who appears to have abandoned her adolescence altogether and skipped straight into life as a middle-aged grump.

They are a classic ‘clashing personalities’ double act, played enthusiastically by Helen Monks and Alexa Davies respectively, but last night’s opening episode didn’t give this dynamic quite enough time to really take off, with the plot focused more on the entire family’s attempts to forage for food in preparation for the impending apocalypse their mother is certain will soon be upon them.

What’s most exciting about this series is how well it subverts our expectations of a typical teen-centric show. Neither Germaine nor Aretha are what TV world would consider to be perfect: they’re average-looking misfits who exist on the fringes of society due to their unusual upbringing. But rather than their perceived imperfections becoming the issue or a source of shame, Germaine and Aretha are shown to be refreshingly happy, confident and comfortable in who they are as people. And that should make us all feel at least a little bit better about ourselves.

Likewise, the show’s depiction of its council estate setting is not, as you might expect, one of a grim and horizonless wasteland, but one of a bright, nurturing environment populated with intelligent working class people who like to quote George Orwell and spin gloriously witty one-liners like, “I’ve tumesced below the wrist. I’ve got a hand on!”

Monks and Davies are both empathetic and entertaining performers, as is Philip Jackson as their freshly-aroused Grampy, but Rebekah Staton’s straight-talking matriarch, Della, is the breakout character. Strong-willed, acerbic, and loveably unconventional, she inevitably gets all the best lines: “Take it from me, nothing makes an unwanted swelling disappear faster than the sight of an axe.” I’m not sure I want to find out how she came to acquire that nugget of information.

Jokes like this come thick and fast in a Moran-esque whirlwind of superbly composed one-liners that are delivered with such alacrity as to almost demand repeat viewing, just to ensure you fully catch each and every one. Not that any further encouragement is needed; Raised by Wolves is such a bold, clever and proudly unusual depiction of a modern dysfunctional family made up of complex characters, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in their company.

Click here to watch Raised by Wolves – Hand Jam on 4oD

Run All Night – Film Review

Liam Neeson’s latest geri-actioner, Run All Night, finds him re-teaming with the director of unimaginative action movies Unknown and last year’s Non-Stop for a gritty urban thriller that, despite an over-reliance on tired tropes and superfluous stylistic flourishes, offers a tense and engaging exploration of redemption, loyalty and family.

The Taken-actor is never anything less than an intense and empathetic presence as Jimmy Conlon, an ageing, alcoholic hitman who is forced to test his loyalty towards his brutal former boss, Shawn Maguire, when he and his estranged son, Mike, are caught up in the murder of Shawn’s reckless progeny, Danny.

While the action genre might still be considered a young man’s game, it’s unsurprising that it’s the two veteran performers, Neeson and Harris, who stand out here. Neeson’s Jimmy may wear a leather jacket and have a knack for pummeling faces like Bryan Mills, but he cuts a far more complex figure, battling an overwhelming guilt for his past crimes with a steady supply of booze while the pain of having to abandon his family only compounds his misery and loneliness.

Harris, too, is served with a meaty role in Jimmy’s life-long friend Shawn, a cold and ruthless criminal driven to avenge his son’s death. The four-time Oscar nominee bestows his character with a surprising depth of feeling, allowing us to see the agony of being betrayed by his closest friend behind that intimidating stare. Their bitter feud plays out as a subtle character study into the importance of brotherhood and honour in men, with every scene between the pair bursting with a raw emotion that hints at the rich history they share.

Yet, while this tale of divided loyalty is handled with depth and restraint, it’s just about the only thing in the film that is. Brad Ingelsby’s script simply can’t resist indulging the thriller genres most commonplace cliches, presenting us with a protagonist who is a broken alcoholic until that trait no longer serves the plot, at which point it’s immediately forgotten, and setting the action in such hackneyed locations as a shady, mob-owned bar and an isolated lakeside cabin that just so happens to be the perfect place for a climatic shootout. All of which smacks of the lack of invention that spoilt Ingelsby’s previous effort, 2013’s Out of the Furnace.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction is also a mixed bag. At times he displays an impressive aptitude for executing slick and brutal action sequences, such as a pulsating car chase through the not-so-glamorous New York City streets, which revels in its breathless suspense.

It’s when Serra lets his imagination run too wild, however, that he runs into trouble. Too often the director overloads scenes with gratuitous flourishes, like choosing to race across Brooklyn’s rooftops and zoom in on the next location rather than simply cut between the two, or incessantly using speed-ramping, a device that went out of fashion about 30 seconds after the end of 300, to inject some extra dramatic flare when none is required.

If Serra had kept things simple, and focused more on Jimmy and Shawn’s richly rewarding relationship, then Run All Night might have turned into something special. Instead, it’s merely a taut, exhilarating, at times frustratingly preposterous, thriller that had the potential to be so much more.

Runtime: 114 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 13 March 2015;

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra; Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby;

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook

Click here to watch the trailer for Run All Night

Things you might have missed: Unbreakbale Kimmy Schmidt

It is common knowledge that getting a new sitcom off the ground can be a fickle business, but even Tina Fey, the comedic genius behind the brilliant 30 Rock, must have been taken aback when NBC decided to ditch her new show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, before its first season had even aired.

Quite why the network is so determined to decimate its comedy output will likely remain as one of the great mysteries of our time, but their lost is most certainly Netflix’s gain. The online-streaming behemoth swiftly swooped to give the show a two season pick-up, the first of which was made available in its entirety last Friday.

Even from just the pilot episode, Fey’s perky sitcom looks like it has what it takes to join House of Cards, Better Call Saul and Orange is the New Black in the line-up of superb shows that make Netflix essential. Sweet, funny and unashamedly optimistic, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the perfect remedy to our modern day cynicism.

The show centres on Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy, who is rescued from an underground bunker where she has spent the last 15 years imprisoned by a reverend who told her and three other women that the earth was destroyed by an apocalypse.

Keen to avoid being forever labelled as “one of the mole women”, she decides to start her life afresh in New York City. A hefty dose of sitcom good fortune lands her a cushy job nannying for Jane Krakowski’s barmy Manhattanite and an affordable flatshare with a fabulously camp out-of-work actor (Tituss Burgess), but when life in the Big Apple starts to bite back, Kimmy begins to question if she has what it takes to survive in the real world.

The show hinges on Kemper’s bright and effervescent performance, the actress clearly channeling her time as The Office’s meek receptionist Erin Hannon into the kind-but-guileless Kimmy. All big, beaming eyes and eager grin, and dressed in a fetching collection of yellow cardigans and floral blouses, it’s impossible not to warm to Kimmy as her insatiable enthusiasm for even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, such as getting a job or running outside, becomes truly infectious.

Her unflinching optimism is the lynchpin that makes the show so unique. After a spate of dark comedies that mocked everything we consider to be crap about modern life, Kimmy’s can-do attitude feels like a breath of fresh air.

Her story harbours a positive message about not letting our fears about what people think of us hold us back from being who we want to be as, having spent a decade and a half hidden from the world, Kimmy has no idea what is normal and is therefore free to live her life in whatever way makes her most happy. In this way, Kimmy represents the kind of person we all secretly wish we could be, and that makes her an entirely rootable protagonist.

But while the show is mostly warm-hearted and sweet-natured, the comedy never feels sickly or saccharine largely because the kindness is undercut with a sprinkling of Fey’s trademark bitter cynicism. Each episode introduces a new opponent who tries to convince Kimmy that she doesn’t belong in the real world – in the first episode we see her get mugged in a nightclub, fired from her job and told she isn’t tough enough to survive in New York City. Yet she always finds a way to prove her doubters wrong and come out on top. Well, she is unbreakable, after all.

It’s not as manically paced as Fey’s previous hit comedy, 30 Rock, but each episode is still crammed to the seams with a similar brand of absurdist humour. One early scene features a local news caption that reads: “White woman found”, with another, much smaller, caption underneath: “Hispanic woman also found.”

Unbreakable also boasts a sparkling ensemble to support Kemper, with Burgess proving to be the main standout as an out-of-work actor who makes up for his lack of career progression by acting like a diva at home, while Carol Kane could yet be a lot of fun as a hippy landlady if she is granted more screen time.

With thirteen 22-minute episodes to binge through, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a perfect fit for Netflix, whilst also offering a pleasant alternative to its more cynical offerings like Arrested Development and BoJack Horseman. Warm-hearted, quirky and thoroughly hilarious, the show wears its optimism proudly, and with a second season already confirmed, the future is undoubtedly bright for Kimmy; and, indeed, for Netflix too.