Ripper Street, Series Three – TV Review

After being saved from the chop by Amazon Prime following the BBC’s surprising decision to axe the show after just two series, gritty period crime drama Ripper Street belatedly returned to BBC One for a third series last night.

The action picked up four years on from the last series to find our three intrepid detectives disbanded and in vastly different circumstances. Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) has withdrawn from active service and immersed himself in compiling a criminal archive; Drake (Jerome Flynn) has left Whitechapel for a new life in Manchester, where he has risen through the ranks to become an inspector (a development that adds an extra kick of tension to his relationship with his now-equal Reid); Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) has abandoned police work altogether, returning to a life of whiskey-fuelled debauchery; and Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) has finally found respectability as the benefactor of a nurses’ training scheme.

They’re all thrown back into each others’ paths again, however, when a horrifying train crash on the viaduct that runs above Leman Street leaves scores of innocent people either dead or injured, in a scene hauntingly evocative of a war zone.

We may be deprived of the central trio’s trademark bonhomie for much of this opening episode, but the result is no less compelling. The plot is still intense and relentlessly paced, the production design just as brutal and stylish, and the characters are as conflicted and vividly drawn as they’ve ever been. Ripper Street is still a ripping adventure like no other.

Click here to watch Ripper Street – Whitechapel Terminus on BBC iPlayer

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Inside Out – Film Review

If there was any concern among the general public that Pixar was losing its magic, with its unprecedented run of successful movies recently broken by a couple of dud sequels, Inside Out represents the perfect comeback.

Far from playing it safe with a stockholder sequel, something they were harshly accused of doing with Cars 2 and Monsters University, Pixar’s latest release is their most bold, inventive and thematically ambitious movie since Up, exploring what it feels like to be a girl on the brink of adolescence through the prism of duelling emotions that reside within her mind.

The basic story seems fairly ordinary. Riley (Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving midwestern girl whose world is torn apart when her parents suddenly decide to up-sticks and relocate to San Francisco.

It’s here where writer-director Pete Docter’s audacious concept begins to take hold as we delve deep into Riley’s mind where her core emotions – Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Smith) and their preppy leader Joy (Poehler) – try to guide her through the challenge of starting life anew.

But when Joy and Sadness are inadvertently sucked into the outer reaches of Riley’s mind, they face a frantic race against time to make it back to headquarters before the remaining emotions cause irreparable damage to Riley’s personality.

Visually, the movie is a feast for the eyes. Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmen have envisioned the architecture of Riley’s mind as a hallucinogenic theme park where the pillars that form her personality, such as family, hockey and friendship, are represented as floating islands that have their own unique style just like the areas of Disneyland.

From a Dream Production zone that resembles an old-school Hollywood studio to the land of Abstract Thought that turns characters into cubist paintings, this world is a chocolate box of ingenious ideas, one Docter and del Carmen have a lot of fun exploring even as they keep one eye focused on the story by juxtaposing the colourful cerebral-scape with the gloomy San Francisco of Riley’s reality.

It’s this tug-of-war between happiness and sadness that is the main driving force behind the story. There are plenty of throwaway gags to keep both kids and their parents laughing throughout as the script is peppered with wry observations about how the mind works – one recurring joke sees mischievous mind workers recall the memory of a catchy advertising jingle just to annoy the emotions back at HQ.

But much like Joy and Sadness’s endless to-ing and fro-ing over how best to restore Riley’s mood, these funny scenes are almost always followed by moments of deep pathos. One particular scene is rather poignant as Riley’s happy memories become tinged with the sadness of nostalgia, as she grows increasingly homesick for her former life.

It’s moments such as this that are the film’s most powerful and affecting. Examining how the mind operates during our formative years is a tricky thing to dramatise, yet Docter and del Carmen never shirk the challenge, speaking openly about the pain of growing up, and the inevitable change that brings, whilst also telling kids that it’s okay to feel sad about it. And that’s far more impressive than anything you’ll find in their stunning imagery.

Inside Out might not be Pixar’s best work – the latter half feels repetitive as it struggles to maintain momentum, but it is a striking return to form for the studio. Endlessly imaginative, visually astounding and delivered with a hefty dose of wit and pathos, Inside Out captures what it’s like to grow-up and executes it beautifully.

Runtime: 94 mins; Genre: Animation; Released: 24 July 2015

Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen; Screenwriters: Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Peter Docter;

Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Mindy Kaling

Click here to watch the trailer for Inside Out

Ant-Man – Film Review

With every major Hollywood studio now firmly aboard the comic book movie bandwagon, it’s little wonder audiences are starting to talk of superhero fatigue. From Marvel’s ever expanding shared universe that traverses both film and TV to DC’s newly announced plans to make at least two superhero movies a year from 2016, our screens are crammed with characters possessing superpowers or uncanny abilities of some kind and moviegoers are understandably beginning to feel a little topped out by the pile-up.

This was most evident with the Avengers’ most recent outing, Age of Ultron, which, although a huge box office hit, drew criticism for its bloated cast and over-reliance on hackneyed action sequences. Clearly, the studio was in need of fresh lick of invention.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that Marvel should bestow such a mammoth task upon the miniature shoulders of its newest recruit, Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, an ex-con who possesses a high-tech suit that can shrink the wearer to the size of an insect. But while, much like its titular hero, Ant-Man isn’t the biggest or most impressive superhero movie, it is a fleet-footed heist caper that delivers laughs and slick action thrills on a suitably smaller scale to the other Marvel behemoths, and feels all the lighter and fresher for it.

Paul Rudd plays Lang, a desperate petty thief who is recruited by reclusive genius Hank Pym (Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Lilly) to execute a daring heist that will prevent Pym’s former mentor Darren Cross (Stoll) from replicating the Ant-Man technology and using it as a weapon for evil. Seeing it as his final chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged daughter Cassie, Lang agrees to don the mantle of Marvel’s teeniest hero.

The story is, admittedly, a predictable origin story in which Lang learns how to use the suit, and in the process what it means to be a hero, before facing-off against a villain who uses similar abilities for evil. But this simplicity works in the film’s favour, leaving more room for the franchise’s trademark wry humour, and with Rudd and Anchorman’s Adam McKay part of the script writing team, Ant-Man might just be the funniest Marvel movie yet.

The cast is well equipped with snappy one-liners that take down the ridiculousness of Lang’s situation whilst also poking fun at the wider MCU (including a well-timed gag about the studio’s over-reliance on city-smashing climaxes). Meanwhile, director Peyton Reed deftly infuses the Shrinking-man action with smart visuals gags with the standout scene intercutting between a ferocious micro battle across a train line and the less impressive shot of a toy Thomas the Tank Engine chugging merrily along the track.

Peyton also gives the film’s action sequences a unique visual flavour; utilising macro photography and motion capture to create epic, otherworldly landscapes out of unexpected places. With such inventive settings as a scrap inside a locked suitcase and a chase through a paper-mache city, the action here is imaginative, exhilarating and more than a match for anything its bigger Marvel buddies can muster.

Rudd is a surprising revelation as scruffy, street-wise crook Lang. Much like Tony Stark and Peter Quill before him, Lang is not an obvious candidate for heroism: he’s a repeat offender who’s spent time in prison and is a fairly useless father. Yet, despite his propensity to commit unsavoury acts, Lang is a likeable and thoroughly rootable hero, largely thanks to Rudd’s charming performance, grinning cheekily through the comedic moments and convincing as a father desperate to repair his relationship with his daughter, ensuring we’re fully invested in his redemption.

Where Ant-Man falters is in the use of its supporting cast. While Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly having a winning father-daughter chemistry that helps to sell their characters’ cliché-riddled family melodrama, Stoll is given little to work with, as the motivation behind Cross/Yellowjacket’s villainy is never fully explained.

Likewise, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the racial stereotypes present in Lang’s crew (a Russian computer hacker, really?), who exist as unnecessary comic relief in a film that’s already plenty funny, and The Falcon’s (Anthony Mackie) superfluous scene feels like a distracting attempt to link the story back to the Avengers.

These are but minor quibbles, however. Despite its rocky road through production – Edgar Wright was original slated to write and direct only to withdraw close to the start of filming due to creative differences – Ant-Man is an assured and effective origin story that acts as a delightfully playful palette cleanser to the larger Marvel machine. Sometimes less really can be more.

Runtime: 117mins; Genre: Action/Sci-Fi; Released: 17 July 2015;

Director: Peyton Reed; Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd;

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll

Click here to watch the trailer for Ant-Man

Agent Carter – TV Review

Six months after it aired in the US, Agent Carter, Marvel’s Hayley Atwell-starring spy caper about the fearless English rose who stole Captain America’s heart, belatedly made its UK debut on Fox last night.

Set in 1946, a year after Captain America: The First Avenger, the series finds Peggy Carter (Atwell) struggling to adapt to single life in New York, where she has been posted to the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a sort of proto-SHIELD), and is still grieving the loss of her beloved Cap who ‘died’ heroically ditching a Hydra megabomber into the freezing North Atlantic.

Despite her distinguished war record, Peggy is frustrated to find her role at the SSR is reduced to filing and making coffee for her male counterparts – a clever reference to the way hardworking women were swiftly replaced by returning men following the end of World War Two.

Unsurprisingly, then, the action-starved agent is chomping at the bit to re-prove her mettle. So when playboy inventor Howard Stark (a suave Dom Cooper) is accused of selling weapons of mass destruction, Peggy jumps at the chance to return to the field, turning double-agent against the SSR as she bids to clear the name of her wartime ally.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is crammed with characters who have superpowers, or at the very least a flying suit of cyber armour, the company’s TV endeavours have thus far taken a more grounded approach, from the average-Joe suits of Agents of SHIELD to Netflix’s gritty street-fighter interpretation of Daredevil, and Agent Carter fits this mould perfectly.

A smart, capable woman, Peggy relies on her wit and determination to get ahead. We also learn she’s no easy push-over as she swiftly despatches several baddies with some slick, inventive fight moves.

Peggy should also be praised for the way she handles the casual misogyny that pervades in every corner of her office as refuses to let any man defend her and even goes as far as to reprimand one well-meaning colleague for doing just that.

Instead, she lets her work do her talking, whilst also using her superiors’ sexism to her advantage when the opportunity arises to snoop some Intel, and Peggy quickly picks up the trail of those responsible for framing Stark.

Atwell is fantastic in this role, delivering a charming, layered performance as she momentarily allows Peggy’s loneliness and heartbreak leak out from under her resilient, no-nonsense exterior. It makes Peggy a relatable hero who is exceptionally easy to root for.

Peggy also forms an entertaining ying-and-yang relationship with James D’Arcy’s mild-mannered butler Jarvis, a trusted employee of Stark’s who is sent to assist Peggy in her secret missions. Although they share only a few brief exchanges in this first episode, Atwell and D’Arcy’s sizzling chemistry is immediately apparent and their characters’ burgeoning partnership should add some much-needed levity in the coming weeks.

It must be said, too, that the series is incredibly stylish, the exquisitely detailed production design evoking the period setting, with sharp suits, curvy cars and fetching hats the order of the day; while retro gadgets like a safe-cracking wrist watch add a classic espionage thriller flavour to proceedings.

This unique style also helps to distinguish the series from the wider MCU as – save for an early flashback to The First Avenger and a few other subtle references – Agent Carter feels free to plough its own course, safe in the knowledge that its historical displacement means it doesn’t have to worry about the twists and turns of the current continuity – something which often henpecks Agents of SHIELD and, to a lesser extent, Daredevil.

It’s not entirely faultless, though. There are a few lines of clunky exposition, the villains feel like silent, slippery caricatures, and the desire to make Peggy’s SSR colleagues overtly sexist means they barely register as one-note characters at this early stage.

Nevertheless, the pacing is swift and the plot is action-packed with the first episode introducing plenty of mysterious threads to unravel as the series develops, ensuring viewers are immediately hooked on this stylish, progressive drama. It may have taken its time getting here, but Crikey O’Reilly, Agent Carter is well worth the wait.

Click here to watch the trailer for Agent Carter

Ted 2 – Film Review

The first Ted movie, about an infantile Boston native whose teddy bear friend is brought to life by a childhood wish, was a triumphant throwback to high-concept comedies of the 80s that was elevated to the level of cult phenomenon by a hair-raisingly funny script that let rip Seth MacFarlane’s twisted views of life, love and race relations.

Ted 2 clearly has the Family Guy-creator hoping such adolescent magic will strike again as he reunites with Mark Wahlberg for another round of sophomore, scatological humour. But while this sequel has its moments, the jokes more often misfire and the lack of a well-structured plot makes it a disappointingly scattershot follow-up.

In an interesting reverse of fortunes from the first movie, Ted 2 finds the thunder buddies in drastically different circumstances. John (Wahlberg) is single again after Mila Kunis’ Lori finally grew tired of his inability to grow-up; meanwhile, his best pal Ted (MacFarlane) has just got married to the love of his life, Tammi-Lynn (Barth).

When the newlyweds hit a first-year rocky patch they decide to paper-over the cracks by adopting a child, but their plans are quickly scuppered when the law declares Ted to be property and not a person. Angry and dejected, Ted seeks the legal help of pot-smoking young lawyer Samantha (an underused Seyfried) as he heads to court to regain his human rights.

The unheralded strength of Ted was the effective simplicity of its plot, which focused on the travails of a stunted man-child who learns to move-on from his past and accept his responsibilities as an adult. Though predictable, this story afforded MacFarlane with plenty of opportunities to create outrageous shenanigans as John set out to learn the necessary lessons.

The narrative here, however, is frustratingly uneven. It starts out as Ted and Tammi-Lynn’s quest to adopt a child, then suddenly becomes a court room comedy as Ted battles to be declared human, before finally morphing into a road-trip movie as Ted, John and Samantha head to New York to meet with Morgan Freeman’s legendary civil rights attorney.

In amongst all this is an undercooked subplot that sees the return of Giovanni Ribisi’s creepy toy-stalker, who is this time hired by Hasbro to kidnap Ted in a bid to inject some mild peril into the third act, resulting in a damp finale that plays-out as an almost-exact retread of the first movie’s denouement.

MacFarlane’s error is to switch focus away from Wahlberg’s loveable lunk, John. Ted may be the franchise’s title character, but it’s his fleshy, fallible buddy who is the heart and soul of both movies and it’s a wrench to see him relegated to the role of sidekick while his furry friend is left to do the emotional heavy lifting.

Even though he’s given very little to do – John’s main arc follows his unwillingness to seduce Seyfried’s Gollum-eyed lawyer – Wahlberg is still an endearing presence, bringing an adorable helplessness to his character’s inability to get his life together that makes him easier to root for. By contrast, Ted, as the film’s foul-mouthed comic relief, simply doesn’t have the same pull on our heartstrings, which makes it even harder to invest in the wayward narrative.

Eventually, the movie abandons all pretence of storytelling and becomes a series of half-baked gags. Some of the jokes pay-off – such as John and Ted’s ‘sticky’ mishap in a sperm bank – but most are cringe-worthy misfires that retread the well-worn territory of potheads, practical jokes and politically incorrect cliches from the first movie.

MacFarlane also tries to employ Family Guy-style cutaway gags that take the form of surreal references to scores of movies, such as Jurassic Park and The Lion King. This device works well on the animated sitcom because the characters are often in on the bizarreness of the joke, but here such scenes just sit awkwardly without a punchline as if simply knowing the movie reference is enough.

A lot less fun than the original and unsatisfyingly uneven in both storytelling and comedic tone, Ted 2 is a frankly underwhelming sequel. Though there are enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it an entertaining-enough distraction during an as-yet disappointing summer season, with the exception of an excellent Wahlberg, all involved are capable of producing much better than this.

Runtime: 115 mins; Genre: Comedy; Released: 8 July 2015;

Director: Seth MacFarlane; Writers: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild;

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth

Click here to watch the trailer for Ted 2

7 Days in Hell – First Look Review

The longest tennis match in history was officially contested between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut during the 2010 Wimbledon Championship. The seeded American and French qualifier battled it out for over 11 hours across three days in an effort to progress to the second round. The match has since been widely dubbed ‘the endless game’ and with good reason: the final set alone was longer than the previous longest game.

Even so, their tireless exploits seem like a mere warm up in comparison to the events of 7 Days in Hell, which takes the concept of a never-ending game to absurd new levels in search of raucous laughs. Unfortunately, even at a fleet 42 minutes, Andy Samberg’s sly and silly mockumentary feels more like an exhaustive volley than a backhand smash as it strains to run down the clock long after its goofy premise has thrown in the racket, which is at least fitting for a film about two tennis players stuck in a match that will not end.

Narrated by Jon Hamm in a marvellously deadpan style, 7 Days in Hell tells the story of Aaron Williams (Samberg) and Charles Poole (Kit Harrington), two legendary players who eventually meet in what turns out to be the world’s longest game of tennis. Williams, the adopted sibling of Venus and Serena, is the disgraced bad boy of tennis who returns to the court for one last shot at glory after he is publicly insulted by Poole, an upperclass dimwit who is desperate to win Wimbledon because he thinks it will finally make his callous mother love him.

With American Dad’s Murray Miller on script duties, this mockumentary is obviously less Rob Reiner-style satire – where sending up a world’s natural absurdity is the source of humour – and more of an excuse for another serving of Samberg’s trademark silliness and wacky energy. The film unloads a rapid-fire rate of childish jokes with mixed results – a well-worn gag about The Queen secretly being a foul-mouthed thug unsurprisingly falls flat – but works best when it veers into bizarre non-sequitors such as the strange few minutes spent discussing the groundbreaking work of Swedish courtroom sketch artist Erik Ekland.

Samberg naturally shines in a familiar role as roguish goofball Williams, a ball of manic energy who snorts cocaine between sets and entices streakers into threesomes on centre court to satiate his sexual appetite. The former SNL star is a likeable presence with his good natured charms preventing Williams’ arrogant antics from coming across as too unlikeable.

By comparison, Harrington is somewhat under-served by a one-note role as Poole. Though it’s initially fun to see an actor best known for playing sullen characters try his hand at underplayed comic timing, Harrington is only really required to stare blank-faced and mumble “indubitably” in answer to every question, regardless of its applicability.

A parade of guest stars fill out the remainder of the cast, playing the absurd talking heads who provide colour commentary for the unfolding lunacy. Tennis icons Serena Williams, Chris Everet and John McEnroe lend a modicum of credibility to proceedings, but it’s the cameoing actors who are the most enjoyable. Watch out for Girls’ Lena Dunham hamming it up as a player sponsor sporting a wig identical to Samberg’s and a show-stealing turn from Michael Sheen as a lecherous TV host who makes inappropriate advances towards Poole in a deliciously mean-spirited riff on 70s TV presenters.

7 Days in Hell’s biggest problem is that it feels like a comedy sketch that’s been stretched well beyond its worth. Films bases on SNL sketches are often criticised for their inability to expand upon their initial premise and this mockumentary has a similar struggle as more and more of its jokes begin hitting the net rather than zipping across the baseline. Though at times it feels like inconsequential fun, serving up the perfect blend gonzo wit and goofy flights of fancy, 7 Days in Hell ultimately falls short of the main prize because it doesn’t know when to get off the court.

7 Days in Hell airs this Sunday at 10:10pm on Sky Atlantic

Click here to watch the trailer for 7 Days in Hell

Terminator Genisys – Film Review

“Time travel makes my head hurt,” so says Jai Courtney’s perpetually out-of-his-death Kyle Reese in a weary tone that perfectly captures the mood of this turgid and unimaginative excuse for a reboot.

Attempting to explain the mechanics of time travel in movies is a notoriously treacherous business and Terminator Genisys is a prime example of why it’s such a terrible idea.

The plot of this movie is such an unintelligible mess of timey-wimey nonsense that even the presence of 11th Doctor Matt Smith in a small but pivotal role can’t help make sense of it. It’s tangled web of alternate timelines, paradoxes and nexus points require so much momentum-sapping explanation that the action inevitably becomes dull and repetitive – two things a Terminator movie should never be.

The confusing storyline opens in a familiar way, with Jason Clarke’s John Connor leading yet another assault on a Skynet facility in a bid to end the war with the machines. After failing to prevent a Terminator from being sent back in time to kill his mother, Connor despatches right-hand man Reese to 1984 to save her.

The twist this time is that, instead of a scared waitress, Reese arrives to find Sarah Connor (Clarke) as a skilled fighter protected by an ageing guardian T-800 (Schwarzenegger). Trapped in this alternate timeline and pursued by multiple Terminators, Reese teams up with the unlikely duo and sets out on a mission to reset the future.

Throughout, Genisys tries to score fan points with the audience by referencing iconic moments from the first two movies, but these crowd-pleasing callbacks only serve to emphasise just how inferior this film is by comparison.

Back in 1984, James Cameron’s bold take on time travel and androids was fresh and inventive with the creation of liquid metal AIs in particular leaving fans agape in wonder. Now, though, stories warning about the risks of intelligent technology are a-dime-a-dozen on both the big and small screen, and Genisys has nothing new to add beyond simply reminding us that we’re far too engrossed in our gadgets to see the danger coming.

This lack of imagination is particularly evident during the film’s lacklustre action sequences. There’s nothing here to rival the dazzling spectacle of Cameron’s movies with most of the action beats involving the usual barrage of twisted metal and city-smashing carnage that has become standard box office fare.

Even the creation of a new Terminator that’s part human, part nanotech feels like a rehash of the shapeshifting robot seen in Judgement Day and the unique effect of seeing it blasted into shards of metal only to reassemble and morph back into human form is relentlessly overused to the point where it’s lost what little ‘wow’ factor it had by the time we reach the second act.

The only area where Genisys can claim to have improved upon the original films is in its development of its human characters. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are more intriguing characters here as the alternate timeline allows them to question whether they want to follow the potential future that’s been laid out for them. This question of fate versus free-will makes Emilia Clarke’s smart, resourceful Sarah a more conflicted, and therefore more compelling, hero and adds tension to a budding romance with Courtney’s Reese that only occasionally strays into mushy rom-com territory.

Any goodwill generated by this strong characterisation is simultaneously eroded by the treatment of Schwarzenegger’s T-800. Once the ice cool, taciturn anti-hero of the franchise, Genisys does its best to desecrate Arnie’s iconic character by cracking weak jokes about his inability to blend in with humanity and wastefully using him as the fount of all exposition. Schwarzenegger deserves far better than this substandard material.

The original Terminator films thundered their way into the cinematic zeitgeist via a blend of blazing action, imaginative visuals and economic storytelling that saw the first film likened to a streamlined Dirty Harry.

Terminator Genisys is the antithesis of these ideals, lumbering itself with needlessly complex plotting and rote action sequences that should see the franchise finally self-terminate. This time, please, don’t be back.

Runtime: 126mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Action; Released: 2 July 2015;

Director: Alan Taylor; Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier;

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke

Click here to watch the trailer for Terminator Genisys