Not Safe For Work – TV Review

“Sometimes you are just fucked, alone and doomed,” Zawe Ashton’s brusque young professional bleakly opines at one point in Not Safe For Work, a decidedly downbeat comedy drama that began on Channel 4 last night.

It’s a rather depressing statement, sure; but it’s also one that perfectly sums up the hopeless mood of award-winning playwright DC Moore’s series, which intelligently captures, with a scathing poignancy, the anxiety-ridden mindset of thirtysomethings in modern Britain by following the lives of a bunch of young civil servants working in Northampton.

Ashton, best known as Fresh Meat’s Vod, plays Katherine, an ambitious Londoner whose recent divorce is just the start of her troubles. Soon after, she’s reluctantly selected to join the exodus to Northampton, where her department is dumping the worst of its staff in order to cut costs in a time of austerity.

Her first task upon arrival is to help her feckless, drunken boss Danny (Sacha Dhawan), and his equally useless colleagues, cover up the fact that the department has not done any work in the past two years as an important briefing looms.

It’s easy to see the parallels Moore is drawing between his characters and the so-called ‘unluckiest generation’ as he depicts a group of rootless graduates left treading water and unable to grow up due to the crushing effects of rising rents, student debt and government cuts.

The series features countless people who are struggling to keep it together in the face of the gathering storm. Ashton is superb as Katherine, bringing a surprisingly soft, vulnerable side to contrast her character’s outwardly frosty manner, while Sophie Rundle’s Jenny portrays a gratingly chipper personality to mask her inescapable loneliness following the collapse of her marriage.

It is of course Dhawan – who is seemingly ubiquitous on television these days – who is the standout performer with his irredeemably broken Danny, introduced here urinating into his office before passing out in front of an employee, grabbing most of show’s pathos and nearly all the funniest moments too.

Not that there are many laughs to be found in this opening episode. While Moore tries to undercut the bleakness with wit and dark humour, such as a brilliant Wolf of Wall Street-aping sequence in which a coked-up Danny struggles to navigate the traffic lights of Northampton, for the most part NSFW comes across as far too negative to be enjoyed.

The jokes are too few and far between and the characters lack the necessary warmth to truly make us care about their plight. All of which makes Not Safe For Work a difficult and really rather joyless watch.

Click here to watch a trailer for Not Safe For Work

Minions – Film Review

Not ones to let a money-spinning merchandising opportunity go to waste, Universal took swift advantage of the Minions’ breakout popularity in Despicable Me, packing so much Minion mayhem into its blunt follow-up that the sequel really should have been called The Minions Movie.

Now the studio has gone the whole hog and given the adorably jaundiced-looking critters a prequel/spinoff of their very own with Minions, a relentlessly hilarious solo-outing that is sure to entertain any child that’s already bored of the summer holidays.

The presence of series director Pierre Coffin may provide some continuity with the main franchise, but Minions sadly lacks the heart-warming depth and devilish wit that led to the original films being compared to the work of Pixar.

Minions is clearly geared towards a much younger audience, and Coffin does an excellent job of delivering enough rampant silliness to entertain the targeted tykes, but its aimless plot and absence of endearing characters makes the end result feel disappointingly hollow.

Taking inspiration from the beginnings of recent animated spin-offs Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar, the film opens with a potted history of the small, yellow creatures who have evolved from single-celled organisms into unintelligible beings who have only one purpose: to serve history’s most despicable masters.

After accidentally destroying all their masters, including a T-Rex, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Dracula, the Minions find themselves alone in Antarctica needing a new start in life. Naturally, they turn to a Minion named Kevin, and his pals, Stuart and Bob, to find their new leader.

Their long search leads all the way to Orlando, Florida, and the 1968 Villain-Con, where all the world’s supervillains gather to search for new henchman, where they win a job offer from ambitious villainess Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). And all they have to do is steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.

Having voiced the wacky scene-stealers since their inception, Coffin knows better than anyone that the Minions work best when they’re providing bonkers comic relief. So it’s no surprise that the film is at its most enjoyable when it’s delivering whiplash-quick laughs, staying true to the previous entries’ clever slapstick vibe with a stream of eye-poppingly silly sequences as the Minions try to please their new boss.

Coffin even manages to sneak in a couple of gags for the parents to enjoy, such as a goofy reference to The Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road cover; although, these are quite possibly to infrequent to keep older viewers fully engaged with the plot.

The problems emerge when the film tries to do more than make its audience laugh. Screenwriter Brian Lynch struggles to find a cohesive story for the Minions as they flit between quests to both help and thwart their master with such regularity that the plot ultimately feels like a barely-connected stream of comic vignettes with no over-arching theme.

More importantly, without the warm-hearted focus of Steve Carell’s despicable Gru changing his evil ways out of love for three cute-as-a-button orphans, Minions sorely lacks the tender pathos that viewers have come to expect from the very best animations.

Not that any of this is ruinous, of course. Minions’ sole aim is to provide big laughs to the masses and on that front it is certainly sure-fire hit, successfully transferring its barmy brand of gibberish-fuelled hijinks into a full movie with uneven but undoubtedly hilarious results.

Click here to watch a trailer for Despicable Me

Humans – TV Review

Taking place in a parallel present where eerily humanoid robots, known as ‘Synths’, are the latest must-have gadget to invade our homes, the technophobic themes of Channel 4’s Humans, which began its eight-part run last night, couldn’t be more topical.

The news is currently awash with respected boffins like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates issuing prophecies of the risks of artificial intelligence, while, in cinemas, the likes of Her and Ex Machina explore the implications of our increasingly integrated attachment to technology.

This series, a remake of Swedish hit Real Humans, will do little to quell these fears, Channel 4 having unleashed a sci-fi-tinged psychological thriller that recalls Black Mirror and Cyberbully in the way it exposes uncomfortable truths about our relationship with technology.

The series does an excellent job of instantly realising this brave new world, establishing the Synths as barely accepted additions to society. Used as factory workers, litter-pickers and carers, the androids are marketed to the middle classes as affordable helping hands; meanwhile, those less privileged are worried about the prospect of losing their jobs to machines and children start to wonder whether education is worth the bother.

Director Sam Donovan lends a tense and gritty realism to proceedings by setting the action around familiar domestic locations and shooting scenes with a bleak yet glossy hue to make this dark subject matter seem frighteningly plausible.

The first episode introduces a number of different plot strands, charting the plight of Leo (Merlin’s Colin Moran), a mysterious fugitive on the hunt for a missing Synth, and the tragic relationship between troubled widower George (a masterfully heartbreaking William Hurt) and his outdated Synth, which add further texture to Humans’s vivd world whilst ensuring there’s no shortage of incident to keep the audience on tenterhooks throughout.

A third arc follows the ramifications of Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) buying Gemma Chan’s Synth – christened Anita – to ease the strain on his marriage to Laura (Katherine Parkinson). It’s here where most of the focus of the first episode resides, with the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the Hawkins’s family home playing host to a pot-boiler of a psychological thriller as Laura becomes ever more paranoid about the close bond Anita is forming with her children.

She might have been purchased with the intention of bringing the family closer together, but Anita’s unnerving presence only makes Laura feel more isolated from her loved ones – especially as she seems to be the only one to notice the subtle flickers that suggest Anita has a deeper understanding of the world than she lets on.

Such intense drama requires excellent performances to carry it off and Humans thankfully has those in spades with Katherine Parkinson once again excelling in a serious role, bringing a weary and broken vulnerability to embattled mother Laura.

It’s Gemma Chan who is most impressive, however, as she affords Anita with an unsettling, ethereal quality through a mesmerising stillness of movement that speaks of the many hours spent dedicated to its perfection. It works, too, heightening the difference between her Synth and the human family she ostensibly serves, giving their every interaction an intensely adversarial subtext.

It’s relationships that are at the heart of the show, though. Sure, complex ideas like artificial intelligence and singularity are all name-checked to maintain the veneer of sci-fi, but the series is at its bold, brilliant best when uncovering the realities of how we connect with our gadgets these days.

George’s arc feels particularly poignant, with one devastating scene depicting the moment he realises his malfunctioning Synth is losing the capability to store memories of his dead wife. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, and it feels so raw and evocative because it echoes the way we increasingly store our own memories – pictures, videos, even records of conversations – on perishable pieces of glass and circuitry. It’s powerful stuff.

Smart, gripping and disturbingly relevant, Humans is an excellent addition to the current spate of technophobic thrillers, boasting genuine characters and strong performances with an achingly human message at its core.

Click here to watch the trailer for Humans

Spy – Film Review

Having successfully sent-up rom-coms and buddy cop movies with his most recent offerings, Spy sees Paul Feig, a director who excels at producing female-driven comedies full of genuine characters and pathos, take aim at the spy genre, re-teaming with his muse Melissa McCarthy for this clever spoof that’s as hilarious as it is progressive.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a underrated CIA analyst who’s spent her entire career in a rat-infested basement guiding Jude Law’s dashing Bond-a-like Bradley Fine through various death-defying missions with little reward.

When Rose Byrne’s spoilt baddie Raina Boyanov assassinates Fine and exposes the identities of every known agent in the CIA, Susan is thrown into a dangerous undercover mission to foil the black market sale of a suitcase nuke and avenge Fine’s death.

The way Feig lovingly pokes fun at spy movies of the Roger Moore-era is central to the film’s charm, with a Shirley Bassey-aping title sequence and a playfully gross riff on the kind of ostentatious gadgetry Q was fond of dispensing to his favourite agent putting a classic sheen on proceedings.

The most entertaining subversion by far, though, is Feig’s decision to depict Susan as a smart and savvy rookie agent, using her own resourcefulness to gather leads while her more experienced male counterparts comically create chaos with shenanigans so reckless they’d make even Bond himself shake his head in dismay.

Feig also equips himself well with the film’s action sequences, delivering enough slick and pacey scenes, including a wonderfully inventive knife-versus-frying-pan fight, to keep the adrenalin flowing, but Spy’s primary concern is with making its audience laugh.

On that front it more than excels, largely thanks to the excellent performances of a committed cast who are perfectly happy to take shots at themselves. British sitcom veterans Peter Serafinowicz and Miranda Hart both impress as a sleazy Italian agent and Susan’s fumbling best-friend respectively, but it’s Jason Statham, surprisingly, who nearly runs away with the film as overconfident yet clumsy spy Rick Ford.

The Stath seems to relish the opportunity to tear into his own action hero persona and he’s rewarded with most of the film’s best gags as Ford delights in sharing tales of his ridiculous exploits with anyone who’s unlucky enough to be in the same room as him. “Once, under threat of assassination, I appeared convincingly as Barack Obama,” is just one of his many standout lines.

With so many outlandish characters around her, there’s not much room for McCarthy to show-off her full comic talents here. Instead, she’s forced to play the straight-man to her many goofball colleagues, a role that actually works well for the Mike and Molly-star, as McCarthy is able to showcase the subtler sides of her skills.

As such, she is able to evoke an endearing sense of pathos in Susan, a character who is constantly overlooked and put-down by the people she works so hard to please and it’s a triumphant pleasure to see her finally prove her mettle in the field.

With a winning combination of charming spoof and hilarious characters, Spy is yet another strong offering from Paul Feig, demonstrating a subversive edge and a knack for eliciting committed performances from a female-led cast, which bodes well for his upcoming Ghostbusters reboot.

Runtime: 120 mins; Genre: Action/Comedy; Released: 23 May 2015;

Director: Paul Feig; Screenwriter: Paul Feig;

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law

Click here to watch the trailer for Spy

Sense8 – TV Review

It’s hard not to admire the Wachowski siblings. Directors Lana and Andy changed the way action movies are made with The Matrix trilogy, and their movies are defined by an unbridled sense of originality that’s severely lacking amongst today’s increasingly homogenised blockbusters.

Granted, the duo’s recent offerings, the confusingly intricate Cloud Atlas and this year’s outrageously hammy Jupiter Ascending, have flattered to deceive. The hope is that Sense8, the Wachowskis’ bold sci-fi series that was made available for streaming on Netflix last Friday, will improve their fortunes with a move to the greater expanses of television providing a more suitable home for the scope and complexity that has proved to be too big for the big screen.

At the very least, their faltering success hasn’t dampened their ambition. Sense8 is a truly global adventure that takes in eight cities across seven countries, requiring the help of several assistant directors to marshall a diverse and cumbersome cast. But while this mind-boggling sci-fi exemplifies the Wachowskis’ gift for sumptuous visuals and mythological world building, it’s first episode lacks the nuanced characters and focused storytelling to really do it justice.

The intriguing plot revolves around eight strangers who suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionally connected following a tragic death. The effect is immediately disorientating as each character inadvertently gate-crashes a fellow ‘sensates’ consciousness, but as the story develops they begin to work together under the guide of a mysterious and powerful man named Jonas in order to find the root of their powers and fend-off the murderous advances of a nefarious organisation.

As you might expect, the series boasts many eye-popping visuals and mind-bending action beats, with the Wachowskis immediately enticing the audience into this world with a viscerally disturbing opening sequence that finds a dying woman frantically arguing with two strangers who appear to exist only in her mind.

The most impressive visual trick, though, is the way characters are displaced by showing them in unusual contexts. We think admirable Chicago cop Will (Brian J Smith) is about to break up a neighbour’s raucous party, but instead we find the apartment to be empty as Will experiences the residual echo of a London rave attended by fellow sensate Riley (Tuppence Middleton). It’s a wonderfully discombobulating effect that constantly subverts our expectations, and it could well make for some superbly trippy action sequences in future episodes.

Yet, the same problems that hamper the Wachowskis’ movies are also present here as the spectacular imagery fails to mask the absence of well developed characters. The series is simply overstuffed with people and the plot inevitably gets bogged down in trying to introduce all eight sensates straight away and give each one their own enticing backstory.

In a way, the show bears a resemblance to Orphan Black, a gripping conspiracy thriller that also centres on linked individuals banding together for survival. But where the Canadian cult hit manages to relentlessly propel the action forward and build strong characters by drip-feeding their introductions, Sense8 suffers by going too big too soon, throwing all its characters at the screen simultaneously without giving them enough definition to stand out from the crowd of its own making.

The show clearly feels it has something to say about how people seem to be more connected and yet more divided than ever, as well as exploring themes of sexuality, identity and religion, but the script is too clunky and overwrought to do so in any meaningful or enlightened way, and the overall feeling after the first episode is one of a show that’s failing to live up to its potential.

Still, there’s enough promise in its closing moments, in which the core mystery finally progresses during a Tarantino-esque shootout at a drugs den, to suggest Sense8 could become the show the Wachowskis desperately want it to be, provided they can narrow its focus each episode and give its characters the space to fully develop.

Click here to watch a trailer for Sense8