Inside Number 9: Séance Time – TV Review

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have a knack for taking elements of classic horror and giving them a subversive twist by infusing them with their trademark dark wit.

It worked to great effect in the first series’s gothic chiller The Harrowing, and on the face of it Séance Time, the final episode in this excellent second run, is more of the same as a gauche young woman enters a spooky house and encounters a series of strange goings on. That, however, is just a piece of sly misdirection from the writers; the real horror in this tightly wound half-hour is something altogether more frightful.

The story sees gullible Tina (Sophi McShera, Downton Abbey’s Daisy) attend a séance set up by her sister. As a first-time visitor to the spiritual world, Tina is unsure what to expect (always a wise mindset when dealing with Inside No 9) and is glad to be greeted by Reece Shearsmith’s Hives before she is introduced to blind and hoarse medium Madam Talbot who reveals something unexpected waiting for Tina on the Other Side.

Earlier in the anthology’s run, I criticised the show for its overuse of the final plot twist, suggesting that deploying the device earlier in the story could be more effective. This episode proves how well the idea can work when used appropriately.

Less than half way through Séance Time, the story makes a truly shocking about turn as (SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed that the séance is actually part of an elaborate prank set up by the makers of fictional – yet incredibly plausible – hidden camera show ‘Scardy Cam’. It’s an impressively handled twist, coming as a complete surprise, and it sets the tone nicely for the remainder of the episode where you can never be sure what will happen next.

Instead of training their comedic cross-hairs on the easy target of spiritual hokum, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to territory they previously covered in series one’s The Understudy by writing a playfully biting satire of the acting profession, flooding the cast with stuck-up performers – Shearsmith’s bumptious and selfish host and Alison Steadman’s hilariously theatrical old crone are particularly disdainful delights – and taking mirthful swipes at the acting process.

They never forget to make the story inexorably terrifying, though, walking the fine line between comedy and horror with aplomb. One of the most enjoyable parts of the episode is the way Shearsmith and Pemberton build suspense by recycling classic horror tropes – flickering light bulbs, creaky door hinges, unsuitably creepy dolls – before for firing off another gag that is all the more funny for the way it briefly alleviates the tension.

One other advantage of deploying the plot twist early on is that it invites the audience into a false sense of expectation, relaxing because they believe they now know how the story is going to pan out. It’s more fool anyone who thinks that way, of course, as Shearsmith and Pemberton inevitably have on final sting in their tail.

Séance Time is sprinkled with weird occurrences seemingly unconnected to the hidden camera show’s hoax, with a puddle of water that vanishes and then reappears and a child’s teddy that keeps popping up in odd places, and when Pemberton’s bolshy sceptic inadvertently kills an under-appreciated performer, the stage is set for one more frightening reveal that will chill you to the very core.

As this excellent series has proved, Inside No 9 revels in its ability to keep viewers guessing, entertaining us all with inventive comedies, wrenching dramas and disturbing thrillers throughout its run, and it’s a testament to Shearsmith and Pemberton’s talent that they are able to traverse so many genres without their output ever suffering a dip in quality.

Séance Time is a shining example of their skills, offering up a unique tale packed with knowing humour and shocking reveals, punctuated by a moment of genuine horror that will leave you almost relieved that the series is over. At least until next week when you notice the gapping hole in the schedules where this brilliant, endlessly surprising show should be.

Click here to watch Inside No 9: Séance Time on BBC iPlayer

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Film Review

It’s easy to forget now, just three year later, what a game changer Avengers Assemble was for Marvel Studios. Nothing like this, a shared universe with different franchises coming together to form on giant whole, had ever been attempted before. Of course, it paid off handsomely. A cracking piece of entertainment, melding sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters and a raft of crowd-pleasing moments, the movie dominated the box office that summer to the tune of over a billion dollars, and its success had almost every studio in Hollywood scrambling to replicate the Marvel Model.

Understandably, then, there’s a lot of expectation, and with it a lot of pressure, surrounding it’s follow-up, Age of Ultron, but for the most part returning director Joss Whedon’s succeeds in his mission, crafting a more complex and emotionally fulfilling sequel that, despite its increasingly mechanical actions beats and overstuffed cast, manages to dramatically raise the stakes for the franchise as a whole.

Clearly not over-awed by the size of his challenge, Whedon launches straight into the action with a dizzying, free-flowing pre-credits sequence that sees the team pay a surprise visit to the East European castle hideout of evil Hydra operative Baron von Stucker in order to retrieve an item of immense value: Loki’s sceptre from the first movie.

With SHIELD destroyed and the Avengers needing a hiatus from fighting fires, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) repurposes the advanced tech within the sceptre to jumpstart dormant peacekeeping program, Ultron: a self-aware and, it turns out, a highly volatile AI who decides that humans are the main enemy to world peace and sets out to eradicate them from the earth, as is the wont of psychotic movie robots that are a few circuits short of a full motherboard.

It is the nature of the Avengers that the roster is ridiculously unstable. As Ultron as one point remarks, their personalities are discordant and that makes them vulnerable; so while Avengers Assemble dealt with bringing the superhero team together, Age of Ultron aims to blow them apart.

To do this, Ultron enlists the help of twin Romanian orphans Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen respectively), the latter of whom uses her telekinetic powers to invade the team’s psyches, playing on the story’s Frankenstein influences by exposing the monstrous personalities each hero fears lurks somewhere within them and using this fear to turn them against one another.

As a sequel, it’s inevitably larger in scope and darker than the first movie, but it’s also a much more personal film in many ways, exploring the troubled pasts and underlying pains that motivate the principal cast. What’s pleasantly surprising about this angle is that, aside from paying lip-service to the on-going events of their solo franchises, Whedon spends less time with the big name heroes in order to focus on the ever-present sidekicks who have previously been left unexplored.

This means we finally get a glimpse into Natasha Romanoff’s (Johansson) shadowy origins while she also enters into an unexpected romance with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, Johansson and Ruffalo displaying a charming chemistry as their characters bond over a shared anxiety of failing to contain the violent monsters they hide within themselves.

The main beneficiary of this tactic, however, is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Once an unsympathetic enigma whose presence barely registered, a second act detour into his private life reveals an engaging vulnerable side to Hawkeye that encourages the audience to be more emotionally invested in his survival, a feeling that Whedon exploits to the maximum during the devastating finale.

Whedon’s talent for wrangling large ensembles also extends to introducing the movie’s new characters. Olssen’s Scarlet Witch and Blade Runner-esque synthezoid The Vision (played by Paul Bettany, aka the voice of JARVIS) make for interesting additions as potential heroes who struggle to control their immeasurable powers and have conflicted thoughts about saving humanity. The former’s brotherly half, Quicksilver, on the other hand, is frustratingly sidelined throughout as an irritating speedster with a wobbly accent, which makes the moving pay-off of his final scene all the more surprising.

Yet it’s in the creation of the film’s primary villain that this devotion to characterisation truly excels. Unlike most of the myriad genocidal robots in cinematic history, Ultron is disturbingly human and fallible in his demeanour, acting out of petulant rage because his is pained by his mistaken creation and feels the inescapable loneliness of being constantly misunderstood. And in James Spader, Whedon has found the perfect voice for his creation, those syrupy, malignant tones that are oh-so menacing also lending a certain gravitas to the franchise’s trademark snarky wit. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Ultron steals all the best lines.

Despite its many strengths, Age of Ultron is far from a perfect film, with a bloated cast chief among its concerns. While Whedon does an admirable job weaving individual character moments in amongst the action, the sheer number of separate story arcs stretches the story out of shape and it loses focus as a result.

This is especially evident during a sluggish first half where the need to establish each character takes up so much screen time that it’s possible to forget about the immediate threat Ultron and his enhanced cohorts pose.

Far more worrying for the franchise as a whole, though, is how underwhelmingly formulaic the movie’s many action scenes feel. The battle sequences may still whizz by in an exuberant flurry of knowing quips and CGI explosions, but there’s a telling lack of invention in their execution that takes away some of the excitement, particularly the final act, which once again takes to the skies as the Avengers swoop in to pummel some skyscrapers to rubble.

Perhaps I’ve grown greedy after so many summers spent gorging on the latest eye-popping spectacle Marvel served up, but expecting a little more bang for my buck hardly seems a lot to ask when you consider the sizeable budgets these films have to work with.

None of this is ruinous, though. Whedon delivers a well-executed climax with the time spent exploring each character’s personal detail paying-off with some emotionally wrenching send-offs, and the film goes out on an intriguing note that could potentially signal the beginning of the endgame for the current crop of superheroes.

It may be overloaded with characters and burdened with formulaic action beats, but Age of Ultron benefits from a focus on more personal stories and a bold, unsettling villain to make for a suitably satisfying sequel to the greatest superhero movie of our time.

Running time: 141 mins; Genre: Action/Adventure; Released: 23 April 2015;

Director: Joss Whedon; Screenwriter: Joss Whedon;

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, James Spader

Click here to watch the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron

Inside No 9: Nana’s Party – TV Review

There are very few things we as a species can claim to have in common, but our shared loathing of family gatherings is surely one of them.

Just the mere thought of the prospect of having to spend hours or, in the case of those interminable religious holidays, days trapped in the stifling confines of the family home whilst making enforced chit-chat with people with whom you have no obvious connection other than bloodline is enough to drive even the purest of minds to dark thoughts.

It’s this universal feeling that is gently skewered with sublime brilliance in Nana’s Party, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s twisted take on the domestic family drama.

On the surface, it all appears rather inviting. It’s Nana’s (Elsie Kelly) 79th birthday and to celebrate her daughter Angela has put on a lavish spread, which includes a huge cake (the Chekhov’s gun of sweet desserts, it transpires), while her hubby Jim (Pemberton) plots his next move in a childish, though seemingly harmless, prank war with his smarmy brother-in-law Pat (Shearsmith).

Obviously, it’s what lays beneath this charming exterior where the real intrigue is to be found, and Nana’s Party takes an increasingly dark and troubled turn as the tight boundaries of the family home cause long-simmering tensions to finally boil to the surface.

The half-hour unfolds with the air of a Mike Leigh drama, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s direction evoking the style of kitchen sink realism in their use of northern working class characters who have a Pinter-esque inability to communicate their feelings and cramped domestic settings in which to shoot the drama.

As with all The League of Gentlemen-duo’s writing, Nana’s Party works best when finding the tragic beauty in the mundane, using the claustrophobic environment of Angel and Jim’s plush home to create an uneasy tension that peppers every seemingly bland conversation about road works and bedroom décor as the mounting lies, secrets and betrayals each family member keeps from the others threatens to irrevocably split them apart.

And like the best Mike Leigh films, the real intrigue here sits with the clutch of complex and fascinating characters Shearsmith and Pemberton have created. Elsie Kelly is always a joy in the ‘barmy Nan’ role she played so memorably in Benidorm, and Claire Skinner plays an even more tightly-wound version of her anxious mother character in Outnumbered, spending more time fussing of the alignment of tassels on the lounge rug than she does enjoying her family’s company – a trait that gives the merest of hints as to what troubles her marriage faces.

Lorraine Ashbourne, too, gets to have a lot of fun as sun lotion-guzzling Carol, but also demonstrates an impressive emotional range as her character’s abusive and fragile nature comes to the fore in the most desperately ordinary of ways.

Pemberton once again plays the relatable everyman to perfection but this time with the added twist of giving his character a much darker personality than is initially apparent. Shearsmith’s character, on the other hand, is the complete reverse, emerging as a broken and vulnerable sad-sack through his wife’s betrayal after initially appearing to be a relentlessly wise-cracking tit.

While the overall tone of Nana’s Party is bleak and despairing, a welcome vein of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s trademark off-beat humour runs through the tale. A culminating scene of bizarre farce that involves a pensioner choking on phallic ice cubes, a sudden electrocution and the most inappropriate strip-tease imaginable acts as a relieving moment of levity after the desperate tension of the previous scenes.

It proves to be yet another example of the writers’ lulling the audience into a false sense of security, however, as the following scene immediately delivers an emotional gut-punch of an ending that offers a bleak, yet cathartic, pay-off for its main character’s despicable actions.

Nana’s Party might not give you nightmares or move you to tears like previous episodes in this second series, but it will most definitely give you the perfect excuse when declining your next invitation to a family get-together.

Click here to watch Inside No 9: Nana’s Party on BBC iPlayer

Child 44 – Film Review

There’s a gripping story at the heart of Child 44, Daniel Espinosa’s highly charged adaptation of the first in a trilogy of novels from British author Tom Rob Smith, but all too often this taut crime thriller is crowded out by a barrage of convoluted subplots that distract from the film’s emotionally engaging core.

The problems begin with an over-wrought opening that takes an age to establish Tom Hardy’s relatively simple character. Leo Demidov is a runaway orphan who is somewhat fortuitously transformed into a WW2 hero for his part in the Battle of Berlin.

His wartime exploits eventually land him a high-ranking job with the secret police in Moscow, where he is seemingly more than happy towing the party line that “there is no murder in paradise”, utilising his ferocious interrogation tactics to force those found ‘guilty’ of treason to confess their crimes.

That is, until the son of his long-term comrade, Alexi (Fares Fares), is found dead on the railway lines in suspicious circumstances that appear far from coincidental.

When the focus is solely on this nerve-wracking police procedural-strand, Child 44 feels like a brisk and brilliant thriller. Powered by Hardy’s intense lead performance, this well-crafted plot is tightly-wound and, at times, breathlessly tense as Demidov sets out to track down the man responsible for a growing spate of brutal child murders whilst simultaneously avoiding the clutches of his former employers, led by Joel Kinnaman’s unsettlingly sadistic Vasili Nikitin, after his wife (Rapace) is accused of working as a western spy.

The real issues start to arise when the film allows itself to become bogged down in its myriad meandering subplots. Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price struggle with getting to grips with Smith’s dense material, which itself was criticised for trying to encompass every element of Soviet society at the expense of narrative clarity. The film is guilty of the same flaw, attempting to highlight issues surrounding criminality, education, orphanages and homosexuality amongst many others by steering attention towards under-developed sidelines that never lead anywhere fruitful.

It’s part of an admittedly admirable ambition to expose the true horrors of the Stalin regime, using Demidov’s descent from gem of the Moscow elite to disgraced traitor forced to toil in the dirt to portray the Soviet Union’s troubles in microcosm. The only with fault with this idea is that almost nothing shown here could be considered revelatory. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history will know that communist Russia was not the crime-free utopia Stalin claimed, and Child 44 is far too distracted with the rest of the plot to find the time to explore the extent of the era’s atrocities in any meaningful way.

Espinosa does, however, effectively portray the atmosphere of paranoia and constant fear of the time by utilising disguised camera angles that cause us to consider who else might be watching and question who, if anyone, can be trusted. The Safe House-director also brings a unique visual flair to the occasional action sequences, executing taut fist-fights and chase scenes in an immersive, visceral style rarely seen in period thrillers.

He also succeeds in drawing excellent performances from some of his cast. Hardy, of course, gives a typically vigorous turn as Demidov, setting the audience on edge with an edgy demeanour that hints at a man all too comfortable with committing acts of violence. We always care about his plight, however, due to Hardy’s ever-remarkable talent for revealing the kind, vulnerable sole beneath brutish characters, doing so here through the pain of Demidov’s unrequited love for Raisa, who cuttingly admits to marrying him out of fear rather than romantic attachment.

Paddy Considine is equally affecting as opportunistic child killer Vladimir Malevich, eking an unusual depth of pathos from a normally despicable character by visibly collapsing under the weight of his sins, which makes his scenes of self-torture all the more disturbing.

The final scenes are undoubtedly the film’s best with Espinosa and Price delivering a relentlessly gripping conclusion that offers enough moments of purification to leave this engaging-yet-uneven film on a note of lasting poignancy, whilst also setting events nicely for further adaptations – if audience numbers warrant the effort, that is.

Runtime: 137 mins; Genre: Crime Thriller; Released: 17 April 2015;

Director: Daniel Espinosa; Screenwriter: Richard Price;

Starring: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace

Click here to watch the trailer for Child 44

11 Must-Pause Moments From the Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice Teaser Trailer

A day after a dreadfully pixelated version leaked all over the internet, director Zack Snyder has released what he cheekily refers to as the “not pirated” teaser trailer for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice via Twitter and YouTube.

Despite a runtime of more than two minutes, this first look trailer gives very little away in terms of plot or what role the likes of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor and Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman will play in it, understandably choosing to focus on the two superhero behemoths that adorn its title instead.

That said, there are still plenty of interesting revelations, from a first look at Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader and some pretty cool-looking gadgets, for comic book fans to mull over (once they’ve finished dissecting the latest Star Wars trailer, that is).

So, without much further ado, here are the 11 must-pause moments from the teaser trailer.

Batman-V-Superman-Trailer-Discussion-Statue-Metropolis 1) The tone

While no-one could accuse Man of Steel of being as bright and camp as the Christopher Reeve era movies, the tone of this follow-up is unmistakably darker and more foreboding than anything we’ve previously seen of the last son of Krypton.

Set entirely at night, and swarming with rain-soaked skies, rumbling clouds and ominous tracking shots of a threatening cityscape, the aesthetic is closer to the neo-noir stylings more commonly associated with the Batman series.

Considering that this is ostensibly a Superman sequel, this dark tone might not be the best fit for the movie – when the crux of your story is a powerful alien battling a billionaire dressed in fantastical armour, sometimes you need a bit of levity to aid the suspension of belief.

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2) False God

Despite saving Metropolis from the wrath of General Zod – admittedly, smashing large swathes of the city to dust in the process – it’s clear Superman’s heroics haven’t totally ingratiated him to everyone.

The trailer opens with a grim voice-over of the various people – Lex Luthor rumoured to be among them – concerned about the effect this interstellar interloper is having on earth and its inhabitants; meanwhile, the camera creeps up on a newly-erected statue of the man himself, revealing that it has been defaced with the phrase ‘False God’.

Messianic imagery and biblical references abound in this brief clip, with one person even referring to Superman as the devil who fell from the sky, suggesting that Snyder is keen to continue depicting the hero as a divisive, God-like figure who could justifiably be viewed as a massive threat.

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3) The hero shot

Our first glimpse of Henry Cavill’s blue and red-clad hero is an iconic shot for the character, shown here using his immense strength to a lift a burning Russian rocket that, we’ll assume, has exploded and crashed to earth requiring some typical high-flying heroics from the man in blue.

Also note the Russian logo on the fuselage, Roscosmos, which could well give credence to the rumour that the KGBeast (a cybernetically enhanced assassin seen primarily as an opponent to Batman in the comics) will feature in the movie.

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 4) Superman’s Guard

One of the most striking clips of the teaser is this shot of a team of Stormtrooper-esque soldiers bowing to Superman as he enters what appears to be an underground vault.

The eagle-eyed among you may also spot what looks like the Superman insignia emblazoned on the shoulder of each soldier, possibly indicating that they’re part of some kind of task force set up to assist Superman in his crime fighting activities.

This would be an intriguing continuation of the themes explored in Man of Steel, which often played on the culture of fear that surrounded the US post-9/11 and also tackled the use of advanced weaponry, such as drones, in overseas conflicts by suggesting that Superman could be used as a military asset.

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5) Ben Affleck looks the part as Batman

His casting may well have proved controversial with comic book fans still scarred by the memory of his awful turn in the equally atrocious Daredevil movie, but there can be no doubting that Ben Affleck looks the part as Bruce Wayne, introduced here showcasing a suitably chiseled jaw and stubbled grimace as he glowers into the middle distance.

Judging by his prolonged staring contest with a display-issue Batsuit (more on that in a moment), it would appear that it has been a few years since Wayne last donned the iconic cape and cowl – which would make sense given the storyline is influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series, which follows the Caped Crusaders attempts to return to crime fighting after a 10 year absence.

We also hear the unmistakable hoarse tones of Jeremy Irons, playing Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, in yet another foreboding voice-over (the trailer really is fully of them), recalling “That’s how it starts – the fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns men cruel.” As descriptions go, it provides a pretty accurate insight into Batman’s deeper motivations, but is Alfred saying it to encourage him to return to action or to warn him against it?

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6) Batman’s got a brand new suit

We’ve already seen a gloomy view of it, courtesy of the teasingly shadowed image Snyder unveiled last year, but the trailer marks our first opportunity to get a proper look at Batman’s new threads.

Affleck’s casting indicated that Snyder and co are aiming for an older portrayal of the legendary character – a bold move in a genre that typically deals in origin stories and year zero reboots – and the new look certainly fits that depiction, boasting a sinewy design with gnarled facial features on the mask that’s perfectly suited to a more worn and weary Dark Knight.

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7) Wayne Manor has had a make-under

Not everything Batman possesses is shiny and new, however, as this shot of the crumbling and graffiti strewn Wayne Manor proves. While we don’t yet know what Wayne has been up to prior to the events of the film, this shot seems to indicate that he has left his childhood home to ruin, lending further credence to the idea that Affleck is playing a Batman who has been on a significant period of gardening leave.

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8) The Batmobile

Batman returns to his parents’ mansion to retrieve his new look Batmobile, seen here rising from the floor in a cloud of dry ice like a glam rock band from the 1980s.

Redesigned to resemble a hybrid of Christopher Nolan’s tumbler and Tim Burton’s less practical, winged creation, we next see the Batmobile locked in a pyrotechnic-splattered chase sequence with some kind of high-tech craft – I initially thought this to be a commandeered Batwing, but rumours suggest it is in fact a futuristic drone.

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9) The Bat stalks his prey

Another iconic image here, this time featuring the Caped Crusader perched on top of a building as he surveys the city below. On closer inspection you can see that Batman is holding what looks to be a grapple gun or a sniper rifle (or perhaps both?), though what use either of those will be in a fight against an indestructible flying alien is anyone’s guess.

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10) Armoured Knight

Not content with having just one new Batsuit, Affleck’s Wayne decides to create a whole new outfit that will help him combat Superman when their final showdown eventually comes.

While we don’t get a chance to see the suit in action just yet, we can see that it is much more heavily armoured compared to Batman’s more traditional cloth getup seen earlier in the trailer. The most striking feature of the new suit, however, is undoubtedly the glowing blue eyes in the cowl – giving Batman the appearance of a dour Iron Man – which double neatly as a mobile Bat Signal, sending his new bat logo shooting into the rainy sky.

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11) Batman V Superman

The new Bat Signal heralds the arrival of the trailer’s hero shot. A red-eyed Superman looms into view in the stormy clouds above us before smashing into the concrete ground below as Batman’s gravelly voice intones, “Do you bleed? You will.”

And that’s it; Snyder is understandably keeping back any footage of the actual confrontation for the full trailer (or, one would hope, the actual movie), allowing the trailer to end on that rather tantalising note.

The biggest question the trailer raises is what causes these two superhero heavyweights to face off in the first place. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s return to action is met with resistance by the US government, who eventually send Superman, now effectively working as their enforcer, to get rid of him once and for all.

That would certainly seem to be a workable idea on this basis of this trailer, with Alfred’s gloomy voice-over suggesting Wayne’s age-old issues with authority and justice persuade him to return, while the few scenes we see of Cavill’s Superman appear to show the son of Krypton teaming up with government forces.

As for what part arch-villain Lex Luthor or the more heroic roles of Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman will have to play in the story looks set to remain a mystery. At least until the full trailer lands later in the year.

Inside No 9: Cold Comfort – TV Review

Following last week’s devilishly funny, if ultimately underwhelming, horror spoof based on the witch trials of the 17th century, Cold Comfort brings us back to the present day and stuffs us into the claustrophobic confines of a bleak call centre for a heart-pounding chiller that will leave you pinned to your sofa long after the credits have rolled.

It’s Andy’s (Steve Pemberton) first day as a volunteer for the Comfort Support Line – or CSL, for short – a dedicated telephone service that offers solace and conversation to the lonely and desperate. While the majority of calls are either pesky PPI claims or (literal) wankers, some of the callers appear to be in genuine need of help, such as a young woman struggling with guilt following a planned abortion and a depressed teenager on the brink of suicide. As the ramifications of these conversations become increasingly harrowing, Andy begins to question if he can cope with such unremitting pressure.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s direction here is masterful, evoking an Orwellian sense of paranoia through the use of CCTV footage. The drama unfolds via a fixed camera in booth no 9 while other angles are displayed split-screen on the side, intensifying the feeling of anxiety as we become aware of potentially important interactions happening just outside our field of vision and also creating an unsettling sense of voyeurism as we begin to question who else might be watching.

But it’s not just in the visuals where Shearsmith and Pemberton excel. The use of tight, static camera angles to translate the suffocating environment of Andy’s cubicle is complimented by a sparing use of sound – the piercing chirp of a ringing telephone; the bone-rattling thrum that accompanies every scene transition – to expertly ratchet up the tension to the point where you’ll be biting your fingernails to the bone waiting for the inevitable breaking point to come.

The supporting cast plays a vital part in developing this disturbing tone by forming a discordant mix of individuals who man the support line but don’t always see eye to eye. Jane Horrocks and Nikki Amuka-Bird, who play snarky Liz and unsympathetic Joanne respectively, do an excellent job of suggesting this inter-office tension despite having very little screen time, while Shearsmith is a constant unnerving presence as Andy’s uptight supervisor.

However, Cold Comfort most relies on the strength of Pemberton’s capricious performance as the beleaguered Andy. Pemberton is required to run a whole gamut of weary emotions to portray his character’s transformation from an eager and likeable newbie to an irritable and, at times, callous senior volunteer. Yet, the actor-writer-director ensures Andy is always a sympathetic character by convincing us that he is a man with a genuine desire to help people, albeit one who may not posses the mental fortitude to survive the harrowing nature of his work – as so few of us probably could.

Last week, I wrote of my concern that Pemberton and Shearsmith’s repetitive use of a concluding twist was beginning to lose its effect; happily, Cold Comfort proves just how wrong I was with the writing duo delivering a breathless twist that comes as a genuine shock as the culprit behind a series of dark prank phone calls dramatically turns the tables on his accusers.

It’s a truly chilling end to a gripping and unsettling tale that kept me guessing right up till the very end.

And just when I thought I knew what to expect from Inside No 9, too.

Click here to watch Inside No 9: Cold Comfort on BBC iPlayer

John Wick – Film Review

It’s a story that may well predate time itself. Keanu Reeves plays a hitman who is forced out of retirement to exact bloody revenge on a group of gangsters foolish enough to get on his bad side.

But what John Wick lacks in narrative invention it more than makes up for it in visual panache and subversive humour, making this suped-up action thriller the perfect Saturday night movie.

First-time directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch direct the action with a clinical precision that mirrors the effortless efficiency of their remorseless assassin, unleashing a torrent of choreographed carnage that takes its inspiration from asian anime and martial arts films by using clean wide shots to frame Wick’s slick moves and slam the audience into every punishing fist fight and explosive shootout.

The story itself also takes a minimalistic approach, swiftly establishing Wick as an empathetic killer by showing him mourning his dead wife and bonding with the adorable puppy she bought for him.

By the time Alfie Allen and his crew of feral Russian thugs arrive to strip away his last hope of salvation, we’re primed and willing for Wick to unleash the relentless killing machine within – murdering a dog will do that to a man, you know.

His character may be the stoic type who prefers to let his unflinching butchery do the talking, but Reeves still delivers a crackling on-screen presence that leaves you in no doubt of Wick’s formidability. The Matrix-star also exposes the vulnerable core of a man tormented by his own immoral choices with a subtlety that marks this performance as a welcome return to form following the underwhelming 47 Ronin.

The plot barrels forward with the propulsive force of an automatic machine gun as Wick cleaves a blood-strewn path to his intended target, but writer Derek Kolstad ensures the action is undercut with moments of wry humour that are essential in fantastical actioners such as this.

Quirky flourishes like the hotel that caters exclusively to a guild of assassins, and is home to Lance Reddick’s superbly understated concierge, whose perfunctory reaction to his guests’ ‘activities’ never fails to amuse, offer a welcome chance for the audience to catch its breath in-between the near- relentless blood-letting.

A sequel is seemingly inevitable, but while there’s plenty of intrigue around Wick and his evidently eventful past to make for an interesting follow-up, the high risk of diminishing returns makes it hard not to hope that all involved honour this film’s surprisingly understated conclusion, which provided a measure of closure to a troubled man seeking redemption, and let John Wick return home.

Anyway, isn’t it time we let a movie hitman enjoy his retirement undisturbed?

Runtime: 101 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 10 April 2015;

Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch; Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad;

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Alfie Allen

Click here to watch the trailer for John Wick