The Past Trisennight on TV #19

Although I only post my TV overviews once a month, I’m always looking ahead to what’s going to be included in them. That’s what made me realise edition #19, scheduled for July 20th, was going to be insanely busy: new episodes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and the entire latest season of The Americans — all things I typically review ‘in full’. Whew! So I’ve brought #19 forward a bit, and #20 will be in a fortnight anyway.

So, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past month three weeks (aka trisennight, a word that Google finds two other uses of ever. Cool.)

Doctor Who  Series 10 Episodes 10-12
The Eaters of LightHistory was made left, right and centre in the last three episodes of Doctor Who’s 36th-ever season. For starters, The Eaters of Light marked the first time someone who wrote for the classic series has written for the revived one. Rona Munro penned the last story of old Who, Survival, a personal favourite of mine and one that, stylistically and tonally, connects remarkably well with the first episode of nuWho, Rose, which is quite the coincidence. Anyway, The Eaters of Light was a solid episode with some very likeable parts, but it didn’t seem to quite gel entirely in the final mix. That’s been a recurring theme for the middle of this season, I feel, with every episode since Knock Knock featuring quality ideas and/or characters and/or scenes that aren’t fully developed into a final whole. Nonetheless, I’d certainly welcome Munro returning again in the future, but who knows what Chris Chibnall has planned.

And then we come to the two-part finale, written (of course) by departing showrunner Steven Moffat. The duology, which sadly is called neither Genesis of the Cybermen nor The Two Masters, continues his previously-stated aim of creating two-parters where each half is a distinctly different episode. The first part, World Enough and Time, is an immediate contender for an all-time great episode of the show. There’s a superb real-science setup with the time-dilated spaceship, plus a suitably eerie hospital in which we ‘unknowingly’ witness the birth of the Cybermen — my favourite Who monster, so perhaps I am a little biased.

World Enough and TimeI put “unknowingly” in inverted commas there because that’s the episode’s biggest problem: thanks to the show’s own promotion, we knew the Cybermen were coming back, and we knew John Simm was returning as the Master. In truth, the former isn’t a problem. Sure, the existence of the Cybermen is played as something of a reveal at the end, but it also works as ‘just’ the reveal that Bill has been converted, and there’s dramatic irony in the viewer knowing what those cloth-headed patients are destined to become. The Master spoiler is more of a problem. The prosthetics turning Simm into Razor are impressive, and even fooled some people who knew he was back… for a bit. I’m sure most people must’ve guessed before the episode ended. It therefore becomes a distraction: what’s his plan? When will he reveal himself? And when the big reveal does come, it’s played as a twist, which it isn’t because we were told about Simm three months ago. Moffat has said before that it was entirely his decision to put Simm in the trailer, and it’s clear it was a misstep. Not a fatal one — World Enough and Time is strong enough to withstand it — but a shame. Can you imagine the reaction if we hadn’t known?

So with the Master finally revealed at episode’s end, he teams up with Missy for the first multi-Master story ever in the extended finale, The Doctor Falls. With a lot of business to attend to, this isn’t quite as striking as its first part. Nonetheless, there’s strong material here. Missy and the Master are a hoot, the pairing of Simm and Michelle Gomez working exactly as well as you’d hope. Their storyline comes to a very fitting conclusion, too. The way Moffat handles Bill being a Cyberman, how she feels inside and how people react to her, was an original use of a well-worn villain. Her possible-departure was fitting too, tying appropriately back to her debut episode. Moffat buried a way for her to return in the dialogue, which hopefully Chibnall will pick up because Bill has been absolutely fab. It would be a real shame if this is the last we see of her. The Doctor FallsAs for the other current Capaldi companion, there was an almost touching exit for Nardole, a character Matt Lucas has managed to imbue with much more likability than was promised in his initial appearance a couple of Christmases back. Finally, Peter Capaldi was in as fine fettle as ever, getting to deliver a few more of his iconic speeches, before going out with a heroic last stand.

Well, not quite going out, because we have that exciting cliffhanger to lead us into the Christmas special. With such a promising setup, let’s hope Moffat can stick the landing. We’ll find out on December 25th…

The Americans  Season 5
The Americans season 5The best show on television” returns for its penultimate run. It’s currently mid-way through here in the UK (where it’s really, really buried on ITV Encore, more’s the pity — it deserves a bigger audience) so I’ll be extra careful to avoid big spoilers. It’s an interesting run of episodes, though: low-key, in their way; slow-paced, even by the standards of current high-quality TV. That’s not to say it’s without merit, but it’s rewarding of long-term investment more than ever. In truth, it may be the show’s weakest run, but that’s very much a relative assertion. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid here, probably the downside of them getting a two-season to-the-finish recommission — these are episodes 1 to 13 of 23, not 1 to 13 of 13.

Still, as I said, it’s most decidedly not without merit, it’s just that the drama is very much internalised into the characters. A lot of it is about Philip and Elizabeth becoming increasingly tired of their life — the toll that all the killing and lying takes. That’s not exactly something new for Philip, but is he reaching breaking point? And to see Elizabeth beginning to struggle too really rams home how tough it is. Indeed, the detrimental effects of this lifestyle are felt across all the storylines and returning characters, as people on both sides come to doubt the justification of their respective causes. Is someone going to snap and betray their country?

Although the season starts (and, in some cases, resolves) plot lines of its own, ultimately the big underlying thread is (picking up from last season) the debate about how, when, and if they can go home to Russia. The kids are a big factor: Paige is still being initiated into the realities of their cause, but Henry is off building a life of his own, now more than ever. At the same time, we’re shown how difficult it is for other people to adjust in similar circumstances, including Russians who’ve defected to America with their kid. These kind of storylines could be heavy-handed parallels on other shows, but The Americans unfurls them gradually and carefully and subtly enough that you come to see it for yourself rather than the show screaming at you to notice the mirroring.

Not the most dramatic run, then, but this deep in I think it’s earnt our trust that they’re going somewhere with it all. It’s also earnt our investment in the characters to the extent that it can base storylines about their internal struggles rather than just exciting espionage stuff. It’s clearly been a not-for-everyone season (reviews are largely positive still, but there are more dissenting voices) but there’s still quality in spades. And it’s still completely unpredictable how it’s all going to wind up next season.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 7-8
In its 7th episode, the new Twin Peaks suddenly delivered a surfeit of story, forging ahead with actual plot developments in several of its disparate storylines. It was almost bizarre. It was good. Heck, some of the scenes were incredible. Laura Dern is perfect here. So did this mark a turning point? Was the series finally getting stuck into the meat of the story? Well, as it turned out, no. Not at all. Indeed, perhaps David Lynch was just pre-trolling us, in his own way, because Part 8…

Twin Peaks Part 8I don’t know if it was the reaction across the board, but on Twitter the reception the 8th episode received was adulatory to the nth degree. Having given us massive developments and beloved characters just one episode before, suddenly we were in a different era, in black and white, with mostly unknown characters, and a narrative conveyed through Lynchian visions rather than traditional storytelling. It made some kind of sense… some of it… in the end… but you certainly had to stick with it. Some of it was incredible — the tracking shot into the mushroom cloud is, somehow, almost inexplicably, one of the greatest shots of all time; an instant classic. But other bits… they did go on rather. I’m not one of those people who wishes the new Twin Peaks was a pure nostalgia fest, all repetition of famous lines and quirky goings on in the Double R over cherry pie and coffee, but I also think Lynch’s indulgence has run a little too rampant. Much of his surrealist imagery works if you’re prepared to engage with it, but I also think much of it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. There’s a difference between a slow pace and no pace.

So, I don’t really think Part 8 is a total revolution in television and one of the greatest episodes of all time, as some people do. For one thing, the opening stuff with Evil Cooper and the Nine Inch Nails performance felt like it belonged at the end of the previous episode but had to be moved for time. It was certainly an experience, though, I’ll give it that. I just hope it’s one that all makes sense in the end…

Preacher  Season 2 Episodes 1-2
Preacher season 2After a sometimes uncertain but ultimately promising first season that was, really, all prologue to the main story, Preacher returns with a confident bang, filled with unstoppable cowboys, exploding SUVs, Maced testicles, intestinal fuel syphons, baby foreskins, and Come On Eileen — and that was just the opening ten minutes. Shows like Legion, American Gods, and, especially, Twin Peaks may have been duking it out for the title of craziest series on television these past few months, but there’s nothing quite like Preacher.

With our trio of heroes — a Texan preacher with the power to make anyone do what he says, his badass girlfriend with a criminal past, and a rough but charming Irish vampire — now on the road, the series itself also feels free of the shackles of the first season’s small-town setting. We’re let loose into a world that can equal the barminess of the leads. A world where we meet a friend who keeps a girl locked in a cage in his garage (for good reason); where you can see a man cheat death nightly at the Mumbai Sky Tower Resort and Casino; where a drug-fuelled binge of pillow-fighting and reading Archie comics can solve your woes; where God goes to a strip joint for the jazz…

Sadly, you can’t really jump in here — too much was established in season one — but the ongoing unpredictable zaniness makes it worth the investment to reach this point, in my view. And with some fan-favourite characters just around the corner, hopefully it’s gonna be a helluva season.

Also watched…
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 6-13 — it’s funny watching this in production order (as it is on the DVDs), because it seems pretty clear they blew the budget sending the cast around Europe for the first few episodes — all the exotic locations are being done with back projection by this point.

    Next fortnight… winter is here.

  • Paddington (2014)

    2015 #182
    Paul King | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

    The signs weren’t good for Paddington as it geared up for release: its star voice actor, Colin Firth, pulled out late in production; on posters, the CGI lead character looked like the personification of the uncanny valley; and the BBFC rating that cited “sex references” made it sound like it had entirely the wrong tone for an adaptation of a beloved classic children’s book. But these portents were quickly consigned to history when the film received an adulatory response from critics and audiences alike.

    The story follows young bear Paddington (in the end voiced by Ben Whishaw) as he leaves his native Peru in search of a new home in London. There he temporarily falls in with the Brown family: reluctant father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), hippyish mum Mary (Sally Hawkins), moody teenage daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), keen son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and their barmy housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters). As they try to find Paddington a permanent home, he comes to the attention of museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who wants to add him to her permanent collection…

    Paddington is a fine example of why you can’t judge a film by its marketing, because the critics were right: this is a joyous, funny movie; a delight for all ages. It also shows that sometimes euphemistic PR phrases like “creative differences” or “we agreed he wasn’t right for the part” aren’t actually euphemistic at all: Firth would’ve been all wrong for Paddington, at least as he’s realised here, and so his departure was a wise move for the sake of the character. Whishaw, on the other hand, nails it, his boyish tones being resolutely character-appropriate.

    The rest of the cast are all very safe pairs of hands, meaning viewers can rest easy that, if there is a weak link, it won’t come from the performances. This is further cemented by supporting turns from the likes of (in order of appearance) Geoffrey Palmer, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Matt Lucas, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent, plus a host of faces viewers may recognise from British TV comedy.

    Fortunately, the screenplay (by director Paul King) is no slouch either. The film mixes various styles of comedy, as verbal humour rubs shoulders with pure slapstick, sight gags sit alongside witty spoofery, and there’s even a spot of pantomime-esque cross-dressing. This isn’t a case of “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks”, though. There’s a resolutely good-natured tone that’s liable to keep a smile on your face, and perhaps even win over more sceptical audience members — just as the initially-grumpier members of the Brown clan are too.

    Inevitably a sequel is in development, but King is reportedly being given as much time as he feels he needs to get it right — always a good thing. Whenever it rolls around, I suspect it will be met with considerably fewer doubts. Not pandering to the criticisms of its pre-release hype, Paddington emerges with a sure-handed approach and material that merits such confidence. A delightful movie for viewers of any age.

    4 out of 5

    The Fifth Estate (2013)

    2015 #144
    Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

    It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

    The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

    Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

    Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

    The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

    Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

    In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

    Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

    In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Local Hero (1983)

    2014 #75
    Bill Forsyth | 111 mins | download | 1.85:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

    Local HeroGentle comedy in which Peter Riegert’s middle-management American oil exec has to persuade the residents of a Scottish village to sell up, unaware that they’re only too keen — for the right price. One of Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time (seriously).

    It’s a funny one, lacking some structural focus and, being independently produced, able to eschew expected endings and pat resolutions. The cast make it, particularly Denis Lawson as the town’s publican/hotelier/solicitor/leader and Burt Lancaster as a beleaguered CEO.

    A more acquired taste than you might expect, Local Hero is lightly, loosely likeable. But cool? Hm.

    4 out of 5

    In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

    The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

    2014 #27
    Ken Russell | 90 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

    The Lair of the White WormThe Lair of the White Worm looks cheap, has a ridiculous story, overacted characters and overcooked dialogue, and by all rights should be a disaster. And maybe it is… but I don’t think so. In the right frame of mind, at any rate, it’s a whale of a time.

    Perhaps it’s “so bad it’s good”, but I’m also not sure of that — I think perhaps director Ken Russell and his ensemble (which includes Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant [both of whom have now played the Twelfth Doctor] and Amanda Donohue) knew they were creating the ludicrous. There’s an indefinable charm that a hundred slicker, objectively more accomplished, films just can’t match.

    To be frank, the whole thing’s pretty much worth it just for the following monologue, delivered by Donohue’s priestess-type:

    Now, if you’re sitting comfortably, I shall tell you why you must not be afraid to die. To die so that the god may live is a privilege, Kevin, and if you know anything at all about history, you will know that human sacrifice is as old as Dionin himself, whose every death is a rebirth into a god ever mightier!
    2 Twelfth Doctors
    [doorbell rings]

    Shit.

    If you don’t really understand why that’s so good, The Lair of the White Worm isn’t for you. If it clicks, however, then this is a forgotten minor gem.

    4 out of 5