The Past Month on TV #32

Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

Westworld  Season 1
Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as they please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, or shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld’s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

Line of Duty  Series 4
Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #62

    M:I-2

    Also Known As: M:i-2

    Country: USA & Germany
    Language: English
    Runtime: 123 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 24th May 2000 (USA)
    UK Release: 7th July 2000
    First Seen: cinema, July 2000

    Stars
    Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Jack Reacher)
    Dougray Scott (Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Enigma)
    Thandie Newton (Besieged, Crash)
    Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

    Director
    John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off)

    Screenwriter
    Robert Towne (yes, the author of The Most Perfect Screenplay Ever™, Chinatown)

    Story by
    Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: First Contact, Battlestar Galactica)
    Brannon Braga (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Enterprise)

    Based on
    Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.

    The Story
    When rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose steals every sample of Bellerophon, the only cure to deadly man-made virus Chimera, his former colleague Ethan Hunt is assigned to get it back. His team includes Nyah Nordoff-Hall, Ambrose’s former lover, who Hunt must send undercover in the villain’s operation. Ambrose plans to blackmail Biocyte, the company behind Chimera, and potentially unleash the virus on the world — unless Hunt & co can destroy it first.

    Our Heroes
    Daredevil IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time with floppy hair! Basically a one-man team, the film nonetheless nods to Mission: Impossible’s original team-based format by having him recruit thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall and his computer expert chum from the first film, Luther Stickell. There’s also pilot Billy Baird, but I’d completely forgotten about him until I looked up a plot summary.

    Our Villain
    A former IMF agent gone bad, Sean Ambrose therefore has access to some of the same skills and tech as Hunt, like those (basically magic) masks. Not so fond of dangling from ventilation shafts, though.

    Best Supporting Character
    For some reason Richard Roxburgh has always stuck in my mind as Ambrose’s South African henchman, Stamp. It was the start of a very successful few years for Roxburgh, in which he had leading roles in high-profile movies like Moulin Rouge, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Van Helsing, playing Dracula in the latter, and was also Sherlock Holmes in a major BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess the lack of critical success that greeted most of those is why he’s somewhat fallen off the radar since.

    Memorable Quote
    “Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you.” — Swanbeck

    Memorable Scene
    At the sale of the cure, Ambrose’s henchman, Stamp, captures Hunt and drags him before his boss. As Ambrose gloats, Hunt can only mumble in protest because Stamp broke his jaw. With great glee, Ambrose unloads his gun into Hunt… and only then spots his little finger, which is missing its tip — just like Ambrose did to punish Stamp earlier. He approaches Hunt and pulls his face off to reveal the real Stamp, his mouth taped shut. Meanwhile, ‘Stamp’ is running off with the cure, and as the Mission: Impossible theme surges on to the soundtrack he whips his mask off to reveal (of course) Hunt. #owned.

    Memorable Music
    The rock version of the main theme, composed by Hans Zimmer and also turned into a song (a song! with lyrics!) by Limp Bizkit, was ever so cool at the time, at least to my teenage ears (I loved the entire soundtrack, actually). It all sounds terribly dated and turn-of-the-millennium now, but hey, that’s music and the ravages of time for you.

    Technical Wizardry
    For the much-trailed close-up shot where Ambrose nearly shoves a knife in Hunt’s eye, Tom Cruise — in a typical daredevil move — insisted a real knife be used and that it stopped just a quarter-inch from his eyeball. To achieve it with some degree of safety, that knife was attached to a cable that was carefully measured to ensure it wouldn’t, you know, half-blind a major movie star.

    Letting the Side Down
    “All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

    Making of
    John Woo’s final cut was 3½ hours long. The studio balked at this (understandably!) and ordered a final length of no more than 2 hours. According to IMDb’s trivia, “this could explain why there are so many plot holes and continuity errors in the theatrical cut.” I’ve never noticed those, personally, but now I’d be fascinated to see that longer version. Considering it’s 16 years later and the film isn’t well liked, I guess we’ll never get the chance.

    Previously on…
    Part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s, the original Mission: Impossible TV series ran for seven seasons, was revived for two more at the end of the the ’80s, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in ’96. (That film narrowly missed out on a place here.)

    Next time…
    To date, three more sequels, with a sixth (at least) in development. The third also missed out on inclusion here, while the fourth and fifth are part of 100 Films.

    Awards
    2 Razzie nominations (Worst Supporting Actress (Thandie Newton), Worst Remake or Sequel)
    2 MTV Movie Awards (Male Performance (Tom Cruise), Action Sequence (the motorcycle chase))
    2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (including Wipeout Scene of the Summer)
    [Thandie Newton was also nominated for Female Newcomer at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, British Actress at the Empire Awards, and Supporting Actress at the Image Awards. Take that, Razzie!]

    What the Critics Said
    “The first Mission: Impossible (1996) had a plot no one understood. Mission: Impossible 2 has a plot you don’t need to understand. It’s been cobbled together by the expert Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne out of elements of other movies, notably Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from which he takes the idea that the hero first falls in love with the heroine, then heartlessly assigns her to resume an old affair with an ex-lover in order to spy on his devious plans. […] If the first movie was entertaining as sound, fury and movement, this one is more evolved, more confident, more sure-footed in the way it marries minimal character development to seamless action.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

    Score: 57%

    What the Public Say
    “compared to the wildly complicated and almost infuriatingly labyrinthine plot of DePalma’s Mission: Impossible it seems like nothing is happening in M:I-2, but the plot here is actually pretty top-notch. […] what I once considered emotionally unsatisfying and intellectually sub-par now seems kind of fascinating. I still tend to not like plots that revolve around a man-made disease as a MacGuffin — I have no idea why, but they always seem lazy to me — but the Cruise/Newton/Scott love triangle holds some very honest beats […] Scott plays a very interesting, unique kind of villain, one I can’t entirely explain. But I think he succeeds in humanizing somebody who is written to be despicable. Scott’s tearful intensity when he learns of Thandie’s betrayal is almost sympathetic.” — Marcus Gorman, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

    How M:I-2 Makes More Sense If You Consider It In a Different Context
    “Fully asserting the series reboot mantra, M:I-2 eschews the original’s ethos in favour of […] traditional, near self-parodic Woo bombast (not enough for some fans, but there’s set pieces here that are among his very best). It’s often dopey, but then, to be fair, so are a lot of Hong Kong action films that don’t tend to get flak for that attribute, including Woo’s own action masterpieces made there. Fifteen years on and three more sequels later, it’s curious to observe how Woo’s film is even less like a traditional Hollywood action blockbuster than De Palma’s.” — Josh Slater-Williams, Vague Visages (the full piece has more analysis in this vein)

    Verdict

    M:i-2, as we used to call it, is pretty much everyone’s least-favourite Mission movie, a place only cemented by the two excellent instalments that have been released during this blog’s lifetime. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure why. It’s very much a John Woo movie, all overblown action and melodramatic stakes, and I’d be tempted to say that turns people off were it not for the love Face/Off receives. Personally I like his style, and I always thought it neat that the Mission series aimed to avoid having a “house style” by hiring distinctive directors for each instalment (a plan that went out the window almost as soon as it began thanks to tapping the bland J.J. Abrams for the third one, but hey-ho). For my money, M:I-2 has a strong storyline (as action-thrillers go), a threatening villain (particularly with his IMF-recruited ex-girlfriend undercover in his operation), and entertaining action sequences. For its genre, what more do you want?

    #63 will be about… truth, beauty, freedom, love.

    The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

    2007 #11
    Gabriele Muccino | 117 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

    The Pursuit of HappynessWill Smith gives up the comedy act and blockbuster action for the sort of true story that you thought only happened in movies.

    His relationship with his screen-son is impressive acting, ’til you realise it’s his real-life son too, but even that does little to undermine things. It manages to avoid the sugary sentimentality that you might expect and in the process makes for a fair tale of the underdog succeeding.

    Cute kid too.

    4 out of 5