Friday, 12 February 2016

Hail, Caesar!

The year is young, so this doesn't mean much, but Hail, Caesar! from the Coen Brothers is my favourite film of the year so far. I enjoyed every minute of it, so I'm giving it ****. My mug is up. My review can be found at Third Way:

Monday, 8 February 2016

TV42: Bloodline

I got up at 8:00 on Saturday morning, facing an empty house for the first weekend in years and no concrete plans for the day, so I decided to start the day with my toast and coffee in bed, watching episode 7 of the first season of the Netflix serial Bloodline. Next thing I knew it was getting dark outside and I was still in bed, watching the 13th and final episode of the season. THAT is a sign of good compelling TV. 

Of course, Netflix specializes in binge TV-watching, designing its series to be watched as quickly as possible (something I have enjoyed doing for decades, if and when I can find the time to do it). And Bloodline, even more than most serials, is structured to be watched as one very long film. Indeed, Bloodline’s masterful structure is one of its best qualities. The writing as a whole is intelligent and of the highest quality. And the cinematography is as good as TV gets, not least because it’s filmed on location in the Florida Keys. What makes Bloodline really special, however, is the acting.

But first - what is Bloodline? Bloodline is a very dark (though not that violent) family drama (by ‘family’, I do not mean it is family-friendly, but that the show is entirely about the dark adventures of one family). The well-respected Rayburn family has been living in the Keys for almost fifty years, running a gorgeous little hotel/resort. The hotel was started by Sally and Robert Rayburn (Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard), who had five children. It would be a spoiler to go into too much detail about what happened to the children over the years (the show is all about the dark secrets of the past), but when the show starts we see that the oldest son, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), has been out of the picture for a while. Danny’s homecoming, for a major celebration, is the trigger that unleashes all kinds of pent-up feelings and memories from the whole family. The second-oldest (and the show’s central figure) is John (Kyle Chandler), who is a detective known for his integrity, working his way up. John is the only one with kids of his own (now teenagers), and his wife, Diana (Jacinda Barrett), also has a major role. Then comes Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who owns a small boat-repair shop near the hotel, and Meg (Linda Cardellini), who is a lawyer who also works for the family. Yeah, I know that’s only four - enough said. 

All of the actors mentioned above are tremendous, with Mendelsohn and Chandler standing out (they also get the most airtime). Created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, Bloodline, from beginning to end of the first season, is film-quality stuff, and I’ve already mentioned how compelling it is was for me. Objectively I consider Bloodline one of the best TV shows ever made. I particularly appreciate the raw film-noir feel and tension of the show and its lack of gratuitous sex or violence. If only I appreciated the overall story a little more. That I didn’t is the reason Bloodline won’t get too high on my favourites list, but I’m still awarding it the highest ***+ rating (very close to ****; I may reconsider). My mug is up. If you have Netflix, check it out. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

TV41: The Returned and Wayward Pines

I coincidentally watched the serial TV series The Returned (French version) and Wayward Pines back-to-back. I say coincidentally because of the uncanny similarity between the two shows, both of which take place in an isolated modern village in a gorgeous mountain setting where very strange things are going on and from which its inhabitants can’t escape.

The Returned

A village nestled in the French Alps beside a huge dam is the setting for the first bizarre story. Village people who had died in the preceding 25 years suddenly reappear while the water level behind the dam steadily falls with no explanation. The dead people have no memories of what happened to them and are as shocked to find out they have died as their families are to see them alive again. That is, SOME of the dead people are shocked; others seem to know more. But the entire first season remains shrouded in mystery and by the end of that season, we don’t yet have any good idea what is happening.

I have mentioned before that I am no fan of zombie shows. As the first season of The Returned progressed, I became increasingly worried that I was watching a well-disguised zombie show. Perhaps that’s what it is, but it’s certainly not a typical zombie storyline and I will no doubt continue to watch, not least because it’s such well-made TV.

The Returned is a pure ensemble show, with no real stars, and the acting is almost universally excellent. Despite the many characters in the show, there is an emphasis on solid character development, with slow thoughtful episodes, and we sympathize with the plight of many of the show’s characters, alive or dead, even with some whose behaviour is far from laudable. The beautiful cinematography and music are likewise outstanding. Only the disquieting uncertainty about where the show might be heading, and the occasional graphic violence, prevents me from calling this superb television. 

This haunting, thought-provoking and, above all, mysterious French serial gets a very solid ***+. Depending on where it goes in season two, The Returned may rise or fall from there. My mug is up. 

Wayward Pines

After watching The Returned, Wayward Pines felt distinctly American in all the worst ways (described below), but it is also very compelling serial television.

Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) is investigating the disappearance of two agents (including a former lover) when he is involved in a head-on collision that leaves his partner dead. Burke wakes up in a hospital in the mysterious village of Wayward Pines, located in a secluded mountain valley in Idaho. Escaping from the clutches of an overbearing and menacing nurse (Melissa Leo), Burke explores the village and finds the missing agents. But what he finds leaves him doubting his sanity and this only gets worse as the days pass. And when he tries to leave Wayward Pines, he makes another mind-blowing discovery. Meanwhile, Burke’s wife (Shannyn Sossamon) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan) at home are trying to discover what has happened to Burke, something they may live to regret. And I will say no more. 

Wayward Pines is compared to Twin Peaks, and there are certainly similarities, but, especially in the first few episodes, it reminded me much more of my all-time favourite TV show: The Prisoner (1967), which could only be a good thing, though the resemblance waned as the show progressed. 

The back of the DVD case describes Wayward Pines as a supernatural thriller. I have no idea why someone saw fit to describe it that way. There is nothing supernatural in Wayward Pines. This is pure science fiction. This is also a good thing.

The countless twists and turns I didn’t see coming are yet another good thing, as is the general quality of the acting (though there are exceptions to that). Dillon is a good choice for this role and Leo, along with Toby Jones (as the village psychiatrist), are also perfectly-cast standouts. 

So what’s wrong with Wayward Pines? In a word, the writing. I mentioned the very American feel of the show, highlighted by the constant resort to violence, which infuses the show. But the biggest problem is the unevenness of the writing, including plot holes which are deep enough to swallow a cruise ship. There were many fascinating intelligent scenes, but just as many scenes were stupid and ill-conceived, especially near the end of the first season. Meanwhile, the cinematography ranges from very good to questionable, especially in the overly-obvious use of CGI. 

Wayward Pines, created by Chad Hodge and based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, was meant to be a miniseries rather than an ongoing TV show. But the ratings were so good, it’s coming back. I am going to give Wayward Pines ***+ because it’s my kind of story (sci-fi mystery) and because it’s more compelling than most TV serials. My mug is up, but I remain disappointed by the brew within. The Returned, which I also gave ***+, is actually far superior in almost every way.