Sunday, 25 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 8. Quirke

My final entry in this British TV serials review series (for now) is not available on Netflix. It’s a three-episode (90 minutes each) semi-serial called Quirke. Written by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson, based on novels by John Banville, Quirke stars Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, the chief pathologist in 1950’s Dublin whose investigations lead him to some very strange and dark places. Michael Gambon plays Quirke’s adopted father, Nick Dunning stars as Quirke’s brother and Aisling Franciosi plays Quirke’s niece. 

Quirke is a largely forgotten show which drew little attention when it was broadcast in late 2013 and doesn’t get much acclaim. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Among its many positive attributes are the wonderfully atmospheric cinematography and locations, the noir feel, the fantastic acting (especially by Byrne, who is perfectly cast), the intelligent screenplays which are much more about character development than they are about the mysteries being solved, and the way the show touches on a variety of issues  in 1950’s Dublin, especially the power of the church.

Quirke is a dark show with a dark protagonist (Quirke is a melancholic alcoholic). Its plots are slow and reward patience that isn’t overly concerned with the crime-solving side of the stories. It isn’t for everyone and it isn’t easy to get hold of, but I had to include it in this review series, because I found it very much worth watching. ***+. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

TV55: The Code

I’m interrupting my series of reviews on British TV serials with a review of an Australian TV serial I just finished watching on Netflix: The Code

I haven’t seen many Australian TV shows, so this is first and foremost an exotic adventure for me, especially since parts of The Code are filmed in rural New South Wales. Unfortunately, the style of cinematography is my least favourite kind (e.g. lots of handheld movement), which lessens the potential for enjoying the wonderful locations. 

The Code, created by Shelley Birse, stars Dan Spielman and Ashley Zuckerman as brothers Ned and Jesse Banks, who live in Canberra (Australia’s capital). Ned is a journalist and Jesse is an autistic convicted computer hacker who is being carefully watched by the authorities. Other major characters include Hani (Adele Perovic), another young hacker who befriends Jesse, Sophie (Chelsea Preston Crayford) director of Communications for the Prime Minister and friend of Ned’s, Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), a schoolteacher in the small town of Lindara, who will also become Ned’s friend, Randall Keats (Aden Young), the PM’s Chief of Staff, Lyndon Joyce (Dan Wyllie), a police detective, and Ian Bradley (David Wenham), the Deputy PM. 

The plot of the first six-episode season is amazingly complex and the scattered nature of the storytelling doesn’t help with comprehension. It starts with a car accident in the middle of the desert. But it’s a suspicious accident and Ned Banks gets a tip from Sophie (or was it Sophie?) that leads him to Alex, who teaches one of the two young people involved in the accident (the other didn’t make it). Alex doesn’t like the way the local police are handling the investigation of the accident and sneaks the cellphone of one of the victims out of the car. Eventually, she asks Ned if he can help her find out what the phone has videotaped, which is something Jesse can do in his sleep. The video reveals that there was a murder, and Jesse breaks the rules of his probation to hack into the computers of a company he suspects was involved in the murder (because of clues in the video). He ends up getting a secret file that is so well encrypted even he can’t see what’s on it. But in the meantime, the powers-that-be (both good and bad) have caught on to what Jesse and Ned are doing and try to stop them from exposing government secrets, an exposure which could have disastrous consequences.

That’s just a barebones outline of the plot. There’s much more going on, which makes the show endlessly fascinating, especially when the story constantly defies predictability. The Code is one of the most raw, original and unconventional TV shows I have ever seen. It uses its unique style to address issues like surveillance and hacking while also not afraid to tackle weapons, torture and government corruption (including the inherently evil way intelligence agencies operate, always a sure way into my heart). Great stuff! And there are consistent efforts at humanization as well, with some excellent character development. The acting is stellar throughout.

The Code isn’t perfect, with issues of credibility surfacing regularly, and some inexplicable plot holes, not to mention that it’s a dark show with a fair bit of violence (to be expected in Australian noir I guess). But this show got to me and I have to give it ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016


The wonderful Tom Hanks stars as ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s new film, Sully. Sully tells the true story of a U.S. Airlines flight forced to land in the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after the plane hit a flock of birds that knocked out both engines. All 155 people on board survived the forced landing thanks to the skill of the pilot (Sully), but the powers-that-be think Sully should have flown the plane back to LaGuardia Airport, and they have computer simulations that prove it would have been possible.

Sully and his copilot (Jeff Sikes, played by Aaron Eckhardt) are convinced that they couldn’t have made it back to the airport with no thrust and find themselves ‘on trial’ for making a dangerous decision. The hearing is the focus of the film, which has numerous flashbacks, including the details of the scary flight itself. Meanwhile, Laura Linney plays Sully’s concerned wife, waiting at home while Sully tries to defend his decision.

Sully is a well-made film telling an interesting story, but it seems to be so intent on being low-key and unsensational, with such understated performances by Hanks and Eckhardt, that I found it difficult to get fully engaged. It’s okay to have the focus on Sully and the anxious self-doubt that grabs him after the landing, and I’m generally a fan of low-key unsensational films. And Hanks, as always, is great (though playing the very stoic Sully doesn’t give him a wide range to play with), with the other actors fine in support. The cinematography is also strong. But something was missing for me. Despite its unique structure and top-notch production values, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a ‘by-the-numbers’ made-for-TV true story. Or maybe it was just too Hollywood for me.

So I think the critics were too kind on this one, especially when they talk about the suspense they found in Sully's plane landing despite the viewers knowing the outcome. I felt none of that suspense myself; the only suspense I felt concerned the results of the hearing.

Nevertheless, Sully is worth watching and gets a solid ***, which is three stars more than Eastwood’s last film (the awful American Sniper). My mug is up. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 7. Happy Valley

As good as Anna Friel is in Marcella, Sarah Lancashire is her equal as another British police officer in Happy Valley. Set in northern England (West Yorkshire), Happy Valley is anything but a happy show. I’ve watched two six-episode seasons on Netflix, both of which are bleak and raw. 

Lancashire plays Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant still recovering from her daughter’s suicide eight years before. With the help of her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering alcoholic, Cawood is bringing up her daughter’s son, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who was the product of a rape by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). When Cawood learns that Royce has been released from prison (where he served eight years on drug charges), she becomes obsessed with finding him, never dreaming how dark that search would become.

In Season Two, which is built on the first season and therefore won’t be described in any detail here, Cawood finds herself under suspicion for murder. While trying to clear herself, she works on a human trafficking case and, of course, we soon run into the ubiquitous serial killer (sigh sigh sigh). 

I loved the originality of the first season as well as the rawness of the characters and the unpredictable plot-lines. Combined with the marvellous performances from all concerned and the sharp writing by the show’s creator, Susan Wainwright, not to mention the excellent cinematography, and I was hooked. Only the darkness of the graphic violence and a slight lack of polish kept me from giving that first season four stars. 

The plot of the second season, unfortunately, went into all kinds of places that didn’t work as well for me, and was less original. But the acting and dialogue remained very strong and Lancashire was so good, and her character so complex and well-developed that I stayed with it, and I’m giving Happy Valley a solid ***+. My mug is up for another British serial worth watching, but be warned that this unhappy show is, like Marcella, a very dark thriller. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 6. Marcella

Now we come to two more Netflix shows featuring women in the lead roles. Both of these actors play top-notch detectives who are struggling with a variety of issues in their personal lives and both deliver such wonderful performances that the shows are worth watching for those performances alone.

I’ll start with Marcella and move on to the second show (Happy Valley) on Saturday. 

Anna Friel plays Detective Sergeant Marcella Backland, a woman who left the police force many years ago to take care of her family but is brought back in when a colleague reveals new evidence about an 11-year-old case Marcella had been working on before she left. The timing isn’t great, however, because Marcella’s husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has just walked out on her and Marcella is about to discover he’s been having an affair for some time. The trauma of this will have a huge impact on Marcella’s ability to focus on the case, especially when strange goings-on at her husband’s company (a huge construction firm led by Sylvie Gibson (Sinéad Cusack)) begin to touch on the case.

The case in question is about a serial killer (sigh - I’m so tired of this theme) and Marcella has her own ideas about where the investigation should go, frustrating many of her colleagues, including her boss, DCI Laura Potter (Nina Sosanya), who tries hard to be supportive. That’s not easy when Marcella begins having mysterious blackouts which will force her to distance herself even further from her colleagues (and even do some illegal things). 

Created by Hans Rosenfeldt and Nicola Larder, and written by Rosenfeldt (who also created The Bridge), the eight-episode first season of Marcella is a dark, twisted and generally gripping series, with great acting by everyone involved (especially Friel), gorgeous cinematography, great music and an original, sympathetic and strong protagonist (whose struggle with mental health issues adds a lot, even if it’s not always credible). That’s all great, but unfortunately Marcella is just a little too cold for my taste (like The Bridge), wastes too many opportunities to be relevant and has a few too many clichés (not to mention a sometimes questionable structure).

Nevertheless, Marcella is an entertaining, well-made British thriller that is worth watching (if you like such shows), not least because it contains so many strong female characters. Marcella gets ***+. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 11 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 5. Doctor Foster

Another Netflix show, Doctor Foster (season one, five episodes) stars Suranne Jones as Dr. Gemma Foster, a doctor at a small medical centre who finds a hair and suddenly suspects that her husband, Simon (Bertie Carvel), is having an affair. Gemma doesn't want to confront Simon without more evidence so she decides to play detective to try and find the truth. What she discovers will send her down a dark path and create an obsession that quickly spirals out of control. 

Doctor Foster is such a dark intense drama, and has such a strong soundtrack, that it is easily dismissed as an absurd melodrama (absurd because Gemma’s actions don’t always feel credible for an intelligent character). But the show, which takes many twists and turns, can be viewed at some level as a vary dark comedy, which would negate that dismissal. I, for one, found Doctor Foster incredibly compelling, mostly because of Jones’s wonderful performance as a woman losing control (the rest of the acting is also very strong for TV), but also because, while Mike Bartlett’s screenplay might verge on the melodramatic, it is well-paced and unpredictable and contains a number of spellbinding scenes full of raw dialogue.

The ending defies expectations and will be hated by some as it will be appreciated by others. In general, I fall into the latter category. Doctor Foster is an original and compelling serial that I thoroughly enjoyed, so much so that I’m giving it ****. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Pete's Dragon

Vic a: Wow!

Vic b: What’s that? You’re giving one of your few ‘wow’s of the year to some mediocre Disney film about a boy and a CGI dragon? Are you kidding me?

Vic a: Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. I didn’t even have any interest in seeing Pete’s Dragon. I mean, the animated version was a dud, so why bother making a live action version, right? But Janelle wanted to see it, so…

Vic b: Yeah, okay, I understand why you went, but that doesn’t explain the ‘wow’. Come on, a super-sweet kids’ film about a lost boy who spends six years in the forest with a dragon before he gets noticed and then of course there’s a baddie who wants to capture and exploit the dragon. What we have here is a simple unoriginal story with an overbearing score and a furry dragon. A ‘wow’? Seriously?

Vic a: I hear you. Even with the excellent child acting (by Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence), I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why did I waste my time and money on this? It doesn’t even resemble any Disney film that I have seen in forever (not even the animated film with the same name): this is a very slow, poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence at all and … wait a minute.’ 

Vic b: So what happened?

Vic a: It dawned on me that Pete’s Dragon was unlike any Disney film I had seen in forever, a slow poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence! Not only that, it had a scene in the middle (with Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard playing father and daughter) that just pulled the ground from under my feet and is now my favourite scene of the year. After that scene I couldn’t stop crying, and neither could Janelle. I can’t even remember the last time I watched a film with an emotional punch like this. Unfathomable.

Vic b: Hmmm. Sounds like you were the victim of some serious sentimental manipulation. Remember this is Disney. Think of all the damage Disney has done to impressionable young minds.

Vic a: I know very well the kind of influence Disney can exert on impressionable young minds. And I agree that something smells fishy when Disney makes a film that doesn’t appear to be fuelled by corporate greed, a film that feels even older than its 1980’s setting and almost seems to dare viewers to come to the cinema to watch somethings completely different. But maybe it’s a sign of hope; I mean, Disney is still making some great films (remember Inside Out?).

Vic b: Yeah, but look at the megabucks they’re raking in; it’s all about the money, as it always has been. Disney just gives people what they want.

Vic a: And yet, even though Pete’s Dragon is doing surprisingly well at the box office, it’s not going to come within light years of The Jungle Book, which was a decent film but nowhere near as good as Pete’ Dragon. Disney must have known this would never be a huge hit, but they took a chance anyway; they should be applauded for that.

Vic b: Somebody must have been sleeping. Who is this David Lowery fellow anyway, the guy who directed and co-wrote Pete’s Dragon?

Vic a: Never heard of him, but I see he did direct an episode of the wonderful Rectify, and Gareth says good things about him, so maybe he slipped through some crack in the Disney machine. Or maybe Disney is able to think beyond the almighty dollar once in a while. 

Vic b: I’ll need more evidence before admitting that. And you still haven’t explained the ‘wow’.

Vic a: Bottom line: Pete’s Dragon is pure magic. It’s about seeing the world through eyes of innocent wonder instead of through eyes of resource extraction; indeed, it's about discovering that there's much more out there than we can see with our eyes. It’s about love, friendship, family and the environment, and did I mention there’s hardly any action and that the film’s baddie (played by Karl Urban) is … wait for it … redeemed at the end?

Vic b: No way! Not in a Disney film. You must have missed something.

Vic a. I couldn’t believe it either. I’m telling you, this is the kind of family film Hollywood hasn’t made in decades and the relief is a little overwhelming. I’m almost in shock, and thus the ‘wow’ and the unexpected ****. My mug is up. Take your kids and take yourselves to the surprise film of the decade (I recommend, as you know, the 2D version).