High Maintenance – TV Review

For many of us, the debut of stoner dramedy High Maintenance on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 10pm) marks the beginning of the show’s first season. Yet, as long terms fans of the show will know, the New York-set series is actually in its seventh year having started out as a plucky web series of Vimeo way back in 2012. And while you might expect the show’s move to traditional television to be a positive one, for many it has raised an uncomfortable question: can the show maintain it’s addictive intimacy and DIY sensibility now it’s firmly part of the media ‘mainstream’?

Those fans can inhale deeply and puff a huge sigh of relief: High Maintenance remains a poignant, sharply observed wave of presentational comedy that’s unlike anything else on TV right now.
4200.jpg
Ostensibly, the show follows the highs and lows of laid-back pot dealer The Guy (played by Ben Sinclair, and co-created the series with wife Katja Blichfeld) as he makes the rounds between his array of unconventional customers. In fact, The Guy is merely the connective tissue between a set of disparate vignettes which peek into the eccentric lives of New York’s most idiosyncratic habitants.
There’s best friends Max and Lainey, whose highly dysfunctional relationship beings to falter when Max discovers a new group of friends; Eesha, a college girl living in Brooklyn who’s struggling to balance her vices with her family’s stringent religious values; and there’s a seemingly boring couple whose intimate dinner party quickly spirals out of control.
Each episode deftly walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy with much of the humour coming from the bizarre characters and strange situations Sinclair and Blichfield have conjured. Yet, their depiction of Brooklyn bohemia never feels offensive or judgemental, largely because they strive to show the best and worst of everyone’s personalities. That includes The Guy, who is as likely to be seen helping a group of girls carry a heavy barrel down a flight of stairs as he is to trying to park his bike on the site of a little girl’s memorial.
Crucially, the new episodes can be enjoyed by both newcomers and long term viewers alike. Each story exists in its own isolated bubble, making it easy to dip in and out of episodes without feeling out of the loop, but there are also just enough in-jokes and callbacks to previous stories – Max will be familiar as the guy saved as ‘Asshole’ in The Guy’s phone after he stole a bag of weed – to please fans of the web series.
Despite the doubters fretting over whether this series could survive the leap to TV sets, High Maintenance has succeeded in remaining a pure, unconventional shot of deft character studies, gentle observations and inventive performances. This viewer, for one, will be coming back for another hit.

Hidden Figures – Film Review

Films chronicling America’s troubled racial history broadly fall into two categories. They are either searing critiques of the injustices coloured people were forced to suffer or old-fashioned yarns which gloss over racial themes with a Hollywood sprinkling of powerful villains and disenfranchised heroes.

Hidden Figures, the true story of three black female mathematicians who helped Nasa fire an astronaut into Earth’s orbit for the first time, falls resoundingly into the latter. Proudly shinning a light on three brilliant women who were cruelly overlooked by history, it’s an engaging, entertaining, feel-good romp through 1960s America, but there’s a nagging sense that it’s considerable flaws have been drowned out by a wave of post-#Oscarsowhite controversy.

3075.jpg

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play the trio of number boffins who work as ‘computers’ for Nasa’s space program. Henson gets the baulk of the screen time as Katherine, a quiet but gifted math whizz who is drafted to assist a previously all-white flight research team who are struggling to keep up with their Russian rivals in an intensifying space race. Even as her ground-breaking work pushes the mission back on track, Katherine is forced to endure any number of demeaning practices: she is not allowed to drink from the communal coffee pot, she is banned from attending briefing meetings and she must run half a mile in heels in order to use to nearest coloured bathroom.

It’s a similar story for her two equally-talented colleagues. Monáe’s sharp-witted Mary faces a court battle to gain permission enrol in a segregated school that will help her to achieve her dream of becoming an engineer. Dorothy (Spencer), meanwhile, has a fight on her hands to persuade Kirsten Dunst’s prickly supervisor to grant her the promotion she most definitely deserves.

Fans of cinematic clichés are well catered for in a story that seeks to paint the struggles of a racially divided nation with the broadest of strokes. This is the type of film where hissable bullies get what’s coming to them and the good guys get to make rousing speeches and grand symbolic gestures to whooping crowds. At one point, Kevin Costner’s gum-chomping Nasa chief smashes a ‘coloured bathroom’ sign and theatrically declares: “At Nasa, everyone pees the same colour.”

hidden-figures3.jpg

Perhaps this overly sentimental outlook is to be expected, especially considering director Theodore Melfi’s previous film was the supremely saccharine St. Vincent. There’s also an argument to be made for highlighting such a stoically defiant approach to racism, something which undoubtedly existed at the time, ahead of the more traditionally cinematic raging protest movements. The problem here is that this approach risks trivialising the challenges these three women had to overcome to be recognised.

This is most obviously felt in the lack of nuance in Katherine’s arc. She not only has to contend with institutional racism from her colleagues, but also has to balance the long hours with the responsibilities of being a single mother to three young girls and the minefield of dating a new man (in the admittedly irresistible form of Mahershala Ali dashing military man) after the death of her husband. Yet Melfi inadvertently treats these issues as mere frivolities that are easily overcome by a spot of flirtatious dancing and a quick snog over the washing-up.

It’s disappointing because the performances, including those of a supporting cast hugely under-served by one-dimensional characters, are worthy of far stronger material. Hidden Figures is an unashamedly upbeat, heart-warming and enjoyable movie that delivers a plea for equality that’s undoubtedly important in the current political climate. Whether it’s also worthy such vaunted critical and ceremonial praise is another matter entirely.

Runtime: 127 mins; Genre: Bio/drama; Released: 17 February 2017;

Director: Theodore Melfi; Screenwriters: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder;

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner

iBoy – Film Review

There were plenty of reasons to be excited by the prospect of iBoy. Netflix’s first original Brit flick, it stars two of our most promising young actors, Bill Milner and Game of Thrones’ Masie Williams, and offers an enticing blend of superhero shenanigans and gritty urban thrills. And while the end result might fall short of the subversive bite of Deadpool or Kick-Ass, iBoy is a pulsating and absorbing thriller about a very different type of superhero.

Not that you would expect such a thing on hearing the film’s rather ordinary sounding premise. Tom (Milner) is a typical teenager who lives on a grim council estate in the heart of London. A social outcast at school, he spends most of his time alone, cramming for exams and quietly pining for the girl he has fancied for as long as he can remember. Of course, that all looks set to change when he is attacked after witnessing the sexual assault of Williams’ Lucy and wakes up in hospital with fragments of his smart phone lodged in his brain.

This being a superhero movie, it’s not long before having bits of computer chip floating around his head starts to have a peculiar affect on Tom. What starts out as a crackle of white noise and an ability to see phone data floating in the air Sherlock-style, swiftly develops into the power to hack into any piece of tech using only his mind. His data roaming charges must be astronomical.

5760

This might not sounds particularly ground-breaking – indeed, iBoy riffs rather heavily in the visual motifs of well-know sci-fi movies like The Matrix and The Dark Knight trilogy – but it’s the way in which these cliched components work together that is really invigorating.

Tom’s story doesn’t unfold as a typical hero’s journey, but rather an exploration of the lengths to which people will go to avenge the ones they love. Tom has next to no interest in saving the world or battling outlandish villains – although Rory Kinnear is excellent as a sneering, over confident gang leader. Instead the young hero is fuelled by an intense need to seek revenge against Lucy’s attackers, channelling his powers into hunting them down and causing them pain. The premise might be ridiculous, but Tom’s motives are a whole lot more believable than dressing up as a bat because your parents were murdered.

IBoy_maisie_williams-585x350.jpg

Director Adam Randall also deserves praise for tackling the aftermath of Lucy’s rape with honesty and sensitivity rather than sweeping it away as a cheap plot device, which has become sadly habitual for many genre offerings. Williams is nothing less than convincing and compelling throughout as Lucy, who comes to accept that she has been the victim of a terrible crime but resolves to fight through the trauma and not let the incident define her.

This is not to brand iBoy as faultless, far from it. The script is often lacking in levity, which is required with such a silly premise, and at times the scope of Tom’s powers strain credulity a step too far – at one point he manages to fend of a gang of heavily armed thugs simply by downloading martial arts videos from YouTube. Nevertheless, iBoy is a slick, suspenseful and inventive take on the genre that provides a glimpse of a very different type of superhero. He might not be one we all like, but he’s certainly one we can believe.

Runtime: 90 mins; Genre: Superhero/Thriller; Released: 27 January 2017;

Director: Adam Randall; Screenwriters: Joe Barton, Kevin Brooks (novel);

Cast: Bill Milner, Masie Williams, Rory Kinnear, Miranda Richardson

Legion – TV Review

At a time when it feels like we’ve reached peak-superhero on screens big and small, it takes something truly special to rise above the critical mass of costumes and crossovers and truly make an impact. Legion, erupting from the mind of Fargo’s Noah Hawley, does exactly that. Taking a lesser known character from the X-Men back catalogue, Hawley has somehow crafted a mind-bending trip that eschews the typical superhero formula in favour of something a little more weird.

Though he’s a minor mutant in Marvel’s vast mythology, Dan Stevens’ David Haller, the potentially super-powered hero at the heart of this story, immediately grabs attention. After a happy childhood dissolves into a fractured morass of mental illness, David is diagnosed with apparent paranoid schizophrenia and locked up in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. It’s a frightening facility, populated by pale, twitchy patients who have gone dead behind the eyes thanks to a destabilising cocktail of drugs and lack of sunlight. Fortunately for David, his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-routine is broken by the arrival of Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), a new patient with a phobia of touching.

The designs are an off-kilter blend of Wes Anderson’s weirdly retro style and Stanley Kubrick’s perception-altering visuals. Aspect ratios shift, timelines crash and bleed into one another and kitchen utensils erupt out of cupboards with volatile telekinetic force. Even the musical cues are intended to knock your senses off-balance, mixing on point records with Jeff Russo’s brittle and edgy score.

legion-1

And that’s entirely in keeping with a show which aims to disorientate and challenging expectations. Legion doesn’t adhere to the villain-of-the-week structure of Arrow or Supergirl, nor does it hit the all-too familiar story beats of Marvel’s Agents of Shield. Instead, Hawley makes his plot deliberately elliptical and misleading, skipping ahead in time at crucial moments before requiring us to piece together what happened as David’s fractured memories leak into the present.

It’s this doubt which forms the basis of the entire series: is David’s ability to manipulate reality with his mind real or just an extension of his paranoid delusions, as the shady, possibly governmental Division is so keen to convince him. Far from being too confusing or exhausting to follow, the first, feature-length episode is a bracing ride from start to finish. After watching so many predictable sci-fi schlock shows of late, it’s exciting to finally see a series that’s determined to challenge what we think we know and keep us guessing to the very end (and possibly beyond).

legion-2

It might have been a different story were it not for Dan Stevens’ excellent lead performance. It’s a difficult role for the former Downton Abbey star, whose character’s mood shifts along with his grip on reality. Not only does Stevens pull of this tricky mix of anger, confusion and vulnerability, he also injects an added dose of sardonic charm that makes David a likeable hero even when he is at his most dangerous.

Time will tell if Hawley can sustain such mind-bending storytelling and visual trickery for an entire series and the real test will come when he needs to provide a pay-off to the many mysteries he has posed. But this is as strong a start as it’s possible to make. A surreal, stylish and distinctive origin story that’s teeming with confidence and imagination, Legion is unlike any superhero story we’ve seen. At least that’s one thing we know for sure.

The Lego Batman Movie – movie review

Throwing the notion of a quick-witted, self-aware superhero into the mainstream long before a Deadpool movie was even thought possible, Will Arnett’s supremely snarky Batman cameo was one of The Lego Movie’s many unexpected pleasures. That the becowled anti-hero is to be unleashed in his very own spin-off movie is not quite as surprising but no less challenging.

But while The Lego Batman Movie is clearly no match for its predecessor in novelty and emotional bite, it’s still a relentlessly witty, fitfully imaginative adventure that puts Zack Snyder’s recent attempts to revive the Caped Crusader’s more fleshy incarnation to shame.

Batman might be approaching his 78th birthday this year, but that hasn’t prevented director Chris McKay and his team of writers from finding a fresh take on the vigilante’s bruised backstory.

We kick things off with Arnett’s gravely-voiced crime fighter milking all the adulation for once again saving Gotham City from one of The Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) needlessly convoluted crime sprees. But when he returns to his ‘puterised’ Batcave beneath Wayne Island there are no baying crowds or adoring fans to welcome him – just a microwave lobster for one and a romcom movie marathon to distract him from thoughts of the family he so cruelly lost as a child.

Naturally, Batman’s solitude is challenged by the appointment of Gotham’s new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) – who makes a politically timely speech about the importance of working together to keep the world safe – and the arrival of his adorably dorky adoptive son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) who stumbles upon his new padre’s secret lair and sets his heart on becoming his favourite superhero’s new sidekick. Oh yeah, and The Joker is getting ready to launch his most bombastic scheme yet in a desperately needy bid to prove to Batman that he is his one true enemy.

Visually, this movie is as delightfully absurd as its predecessor. The stop-motion-esque style of animation remains uncommonly charming and yet proves to be no barrier to executing spectacular set pieces. An opening gambit is particularly impressive, swiftly introducing a raft of new characters – including a rare moment in the spotlight for some of Batman’s lesser known nemeses – while still delivering cinema worthy tension and entertainment.

It’s also frantically funny, boasting a script packed tighter than Robin’s spandex y-fronts with one-liners, silly sight gags and sharp pop culture references – a knack McKay honed through three seasons working on Robot Chicken. The filmmakers are even bold enough to poke fun at Batman’s own chequered history, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek affection aimed towards Adam West’s unashamedly camp ’60s era.

All these positives are not quite enough to mask the movie’s inability to find another gear, though. The Lego Movie worked, at least in part, because it bounced between genres with the boundless enthusiasm of a toddler at Disney Land. Lego Batman, by contrast, works only as a superhero spoof. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but here it makes the tone of the jokes feel unbearably monotonous. This is especially true for Arnett’s grumpy frat boy shtick: an uproarious take down of a comic book icon when delivered in small doses, the rebellious teen antics feel exhaustive when required for every scene.

Still, to dub The Lego Batman Movie a failure for its flaws would be churlish. It might not reach the extraordinary heights of The Lego Movie, but its ingenious craft work, exuberant performances and the sheer joy its story provides remain as exciting and infectious as ever.