A Series of Unfortunate Events

asoue
Copyright: Netflix.

Dear Reader,

I regret to inform you that Netflix has made the baffling decision to turn A Series of Unfortunate Events into a different sort of series. The books, in which Lemony Snicket selflessly chronicled the tragic true tale of the Baudelaire orphans, have sold millions of copies and people all over the world have disgracefully delighted in the sorrowful story of these poor children. There is a great deal of misery contained within these volumes yet the books were sold as children’s literature, probably due to a malicious marketing mix-up.

Why anyone would think that a show involving a deadly house fire, an enormous serpent, killer leeches, dangerous lumber mill machinery, and terrible disguises would be suitable family entertainment is beyond me. It would have been far wiser and more commercially viable to make an 8-episode adaptation of the charming animated film The Littlest Elf instead.

A comic actor played the wretched villain Count Olaf in a film of the Series that plagued cinemas nationwide in 2004 but his repeated attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ fortune are no laughing matter and I daresay that, in their attempt to profit from the orphans’ misfortune, Paramount have something in common with the despicable count.

Now, another misguided attempt at adapting this miserable material has been made and Netflix has gone to great lengths to replicate the tone of the film. They even managed to clone Emily Browning and cast her as Violet again under the name of ‘Malina Weissman’.

The film attempted to condense the plot of the first three books into 90 minutes but the series is stretching this sorry affair into three seasons, prolonging the suffering of these brave, intelligent children. And casting a real baby as Sunny and thus forcing her to be part of this unpleasant production surely counts as some form of child abuse.

There are no photos of the elusive Mr Snicket that aren’t blurry or taken with a long-zoom lens from a great distance but casting Patrick Warburton as Lemony was an ingenious move by the show’s creators since he looks and sounds the exact opposite of how readers pictured Snicket in their heads, which will confound the many police officers and government officials looking for him.

A lot of care has clearly gone into this adaptation, with its storybook-style set design, very fine direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, perfectly acceptable performances, and high amounts of of whimsy – a word which here means ‘silliness and humour added in order to make the cruelty of this whole saga less upsetting’ – but nevertheless, anyone who decides to give this show a try should take its theme song’s advice and look away.

As a wannabe TV critic with nothing better to do, I have a self-imposed duty to sit helpless and watch every minute of these unfortunate events unfold in front of me but there is nothing forcing you to do the same. Be wary and be watchful, but do not watch this. There are plenty of other Netflix Originals available to view that would be more wholesome and worthwhile than this one, like the cartoon with the talking vegetables or the one about the snail that goes fast.

Do not be fooled into thinking that this is all some elaborate attempt at reverse psychology and binge it anyway or you will soon be surely dismayed to discover that A Series of Unfortunate Events contains exactly what it says on the tin.

With all due respect,

Daniel Angelini.

The Fall

the fall
Copyright: BBC.

There’s murder afoot in rainy old Belfast.

Someone’s killed a woman in her home. The police find her strangled and stripped naked on her bed. They’re baffled and they have no suspects and no motive. There’s a man responsible for this horrible crime out there somewhere, but they have no idea where he is or who he could be.

Good thing they’ve brought Gillian Anderson in to catch him, then.

Detective Inspector Stella Gibson is not so much a person as a force of nature. A walking glacier, she slides into frame in a  long white dress, pale skin, bleached-blonde hair, with a cold, blank face and a hard, icy glare that makes it very clear that she is not someone to be messed with.

She seems unshakeable, speaking in a calm monotone and reacting to most bad news with little more than a barely-noticeable raise of an eyebrow, or not reacting at all.

Stella has the unenviable task of solving a murder and catching a killer with a police force made up of a few good officers and a lot of corruption. To make matters worse, she finds that the killer has probably killed before, and there’s nothing stopping him from doing it again.

Meanwhile in a Belfast suburb, unassuming, friendly family man Paul Spector goes about his business. His hobbies include photography, spending time with his kids, murder, DIY, sniffing lingerie, interior design, stalking, breaking and entering, strangulation and babysitting.

Nice bloke. Good with his hands.

Because he looks like he should be on the cover of Esquire, no one even thinks about thinking about making him a suspect. His wife doesn’t know about his nasty night-time crimes and his daughter sleeps soundly in her room, not knowing that his killer kit is stashed in the attic above her head.

But we know. We know everything. The Fall scraps the typical whodunnit mystery in favour of something far more interesting. It puts us in the uncomfortable voyeuristic position of watching Spector plan his crime, stalk his victim, break into their house, kill them, take a few souvenirs, go home, hug his kids and make small talk with his wife. It’s tense and skin-crawlingly creepy. It forces us to get inside of the mind of someone we’d rather run far, far away from.

It presents us with a nice, charming guy with a good job and a caring family who has, to put it mildly, a bit of a twisted, perverse dark side that he expertly hides from everyone else.

The ‘who’ in whodunnit is replaced with a ‘why’. Much of the mystery comes from finding out what Spector’s like, why he does what he does, and wondering if he’ll ever be found out.

Meanwhile, Stella very slowly puts two and two together and makes progress in the case, always a couple of steps behind.

The Fall is quite slow-paced. Actually, that sounds like an insult. A better word would be deliberately-paced. It’s difficult to imagine an episode of The Fall ending in a high-speed, sirens-blaring chase through the city streets. We just watch as the days tick by and see Paul and Stella at home and at work, or indulging in one of their hobbies.

Progress is made and the investigation continues, but the case work is just part of the drama. What these characters do during their down-time speaks volumes about them. It’s where we see the nice side of a serial killer and, yes, the darker side of a detective.

That old ‘We’re not so different, you and I’ cliche is put under the microscope and carefully examined over the course of the series. Cracks appear in Gibson’s glacier and we see a softer side of Spector.

So, it’s part character study, part police drama, part tense mystery, and all the parts come together to make something that’s dark and dour and gripping. It’s a bit of a difficult watch, but it’s worth it.

Series two is airing on Thursday nights at 9pm on BBC2. All episodes of The Fall so far are on BBC iPlayer.

Inevitable Doctor Who blog post

doctor-who deep breath

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and have somehow avoided the massive publicity blitz that the BBC has carried out over recent months (including organising a world tour, ubiquitous advertising on BBC One (even during half-time at the World Cup final), several articles about the show appearing in every major newspaper and online publication, choosing to air the première in cinemas nationally, and putting Peter Capaldi’s face on as many billboards and magazine covers as humanly possible), you’ll probably know that Doctor Who is back.

It’s no surprise that the BBC is promoting the hell out of it, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest cash cows (rivalled only by Sherlock), and after the 50th anniversary special it’s more popular than ever.

In much of the pre-première hype, the writers and the cast kept emphasising how ‘mysterious’ and ‘dark’ the new guy was, and how different he’d be, and how jarring this different Doctor would be, both to his companion Clara and to the viewers at home.

The promotional images emphasised this change to a new moody, brooding Doctor. Instead of the cheeky-chappie face and mischievous grin of Matt Smith, there’s an angry, bushy-eyebrowed Scotsman glaring at you. Instead of a bright purple jacket and goofy bowtie, he’s wearing a plain waistcoat and trousers, all black.

In the trailers, he wonders whether he’s a good man and contemplates his past mistakes, while Clara looks on confused and wonders if she even knows who he is any more.

The message is clear: This is going to be very, very different.

And, for much of the super-long episode, which was even longer than last year’s Day of the Doctor anniversary special, it was quite different to anything from Matt Smith’s years.

The bombastic music was toned down to a bare minimum. The colour scheme was dark and washed out. The tone is noticeably different. The 79-minute running time allowed many scenes to be much longer than they would normally be, giving the episode a slow, leisurely pace. There was a general lack of of scenes featuring the Doctor running around frantically and shouting expository technobabble while the music loudly drowns out his dialogue that normally fill an episode of Doctor Who. Instead, there were plenty of long, quiet conversations with the music little more than a whisper.

Many of these dialogue-heavy scenes were spent giving Clara Oswald some much-needed character. When she was introduced last year, Clara was regarded by the Doctor, and the audience, as more of a mystery than a person. He didn’t know who she was and what she was like, so neither did we, and after he did figure out who she was, he was then preoccupied with other matters, like revisiting the Time War (Day of the Doctor) and fighting a centuries-long battle on a distant planet to keep Gallifrey safe (Time of the Doctor), so Clara got sidelined and, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, was still quite boring and bland.

Here, she finally gets some personality. Struggling to cope with the Doctor’s new face, new personality and new, well, everything, she panics and complains and, in her chats with Madame Vastra and the new Doctor, is established as a bit of a passive-aggressive control freak with a fierce inner strength. The scenes with her and the Doctor arguing with each other are highlights of the episode, as is the scene where the Doctor talks to a homeless man about his new face, which is where we get our first real impression of what the new Doctor will be like.

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Utopia

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The first series of Utopia was one of the most talked-about British shows of last year. It had an eye-poppingly vibrant visual style, a strange soundtrack, a wry sense of humour, a labyrinthine conspiracy plot and, most controversially, frequent scenes of grisly violence that clashed with the show’s colourful comic-book look and caused complaints from squeamish viewers.

I remember the torture scene at the end of the first episode causing several complaints and prompting shock and outrage in the media the next day, as did a school shooting scene in the third episode, which aired a week after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Like many popular British dramas, it’s been picked up for a US remake -would it be brave enough to do the same controversial scenes as the original? There’s not much point in remaking it anyway, it’s not like it’s in a foreign language, unless HBO doubts that Americans will understand Becky’s Welsh accent.

It also received a second series, which started this week and, since I’d never seen the whole series, I decided to catch up on what I’d missed and refresh my memory of what’s happened so far.

The two hitmen, one a sharply-dressed torturer with a quiff, the other a baby-faced man in a leather jacket insistently asking “Where is Jessica Hyde?”, are still just as chilling as before. Their mere appearance in a scene can instantly create an atmosphere of dread and menace and if they’ve brought their bright yellow bag of fun that’s never a good sign.

Their targets are a group of unlikely heroes brought together by a legendary graphic novel called Utopia. The graphic novel’s unusual origins and unpublished sequel spawned plenty of conspiracy theories and online discussion. The group meet online to discuss Utopia, and when one of them reveals that he has the manuscript to the sequel they decide to meet up. But when this meet-up is organised the group become targets for the two hitmen, who are working for a mysterious organisation that also wants to get its hands on the manuscript.

Meanwhile, a senior civil servant is blackmailed into doing the bidding of the same organisation by a Russian who is threatening to expose the civil servants’ affair, which would ruin his political career and his life.

All of these characters quickly find themselves scared, confused, hopelessly lost and out of their depth, as the organisation that seems to have people in high places everywhere tries to track them down, manipulate them, or kill them. Nowhere is safe.

The scenes of violence still shock, though I noticed that during the torture scene that concluded the first episode on 4oD it occasionally cuts to a black screen just before the worst parts – did it do that when it aired? Surely I would have noticed? Or did I look away? Either way it’s still horrific – you can’t see the worst bits, but you can still hear them.

It’s very effective, and it’s similar to the scene near the end of Se7en where they reveal what’s in the box. It’s a disturbing scene but, remarkably, it never actually show the box’s contents. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who insist that it did and how horrible it was, but no, it leaves the imagery up to your imagination.

Utopia racks up an astonishing body count in such a short amount of episodes as our heroes are forced to commit fairly un-heroic acts to survive while on the run, and the network which is simultaneously trying to stop them and carry out a villainous plot nationwide quickly shows that it has no qualms with killing innocent people.

It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s a good one, and it has unexpected moments of wry humour to make the dark subject matter and violent scenes more palatable. It also has a bright and colourful style that is unlike anything else on television and makes everyday British scenery look stunningly pretty and almost otherworldly.

This style is something which I hope the remake keeps, though the remake’s director, David Fincher, is known for using grimy yellow filters and moody darkness in most of his films, so maybe the style will be drastically changed in the HBO version. That would be a shame. Utopia‘s cinematography and over-saturated visuals are what makes it really shine.

Utopia is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4. This week’s double-bill and all of series one is on 4oD. If you don’t have time to watch 6 hours of television to catch up to series two and don’t mind spoilers, here’s a three-minute recap.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones title

It’s one of the most popular television shows in the world (it’s certainly the most-pirated) and one of the most expensive. Each episode sends shockwaves all over the internet, and those who haven’t seen the latest episode yet try to find refuge from spoilers that are suddenly everywhere. Going on any pop-culture website when you aren’t caught up is just asking for trouble, really. The latest season has been the most action-packed season yet, and there’s still three episodes left, including the climactic ninth episode that is often the most jaw-dropping of the season (previous ninth episodes have included a nasty wedding, an epic big-budget battle and a surprising execution. What could possibly happen this year?).

But why exactly has this become such a big hit? What is it that makes Game of Thrones so popular, so appealing to such a wide audience? Even those who normally turn their noses up at anything that has a whiff of fantasy about it and respond to any mention of Lord of the Rings with a dismissive eye-roll have been hooked by this show. If you haven’t seen the show yet and have somehow managed to avoid hearing or reading about any big events that have happened in it, congratulations. Let’s have a spoiler-free look at what made Game of Thrones such a huge phenomenon.

For starters, it’s from HBO, which is as close to a sure-fire seal of quality as you can get for a TV show. It also helps that the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones tend to be fairly minor at first. They become more prominent over time, but the focus of the show is mainly on political intrigue, family rivalries and children being forced to cope with increasingly-dire circumstances, so viewers who aren’t fans of fantasy get pulled in by all the character drama. There are devious back-stabbers, scheming manipulators, a lazy king, a spoiled, malicious prince, primitive barbarians, a reluctant child-bride, incestuous twins, and an honest man trying to do what’s right. This man is called Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and he is the closest thing this show has to a relatable protagonist.

There are a staggeringly-large number of characters, each with their own history, motivations and complicated relationships, and it takes a while to get to know these characters, understand who’s related to who, what they’re doing, why, and why that’s important. Some are mysterious, some are intriguingly complex, some are easy to sympathise with, others are immensely hate-able, some are heroic, some are bastards (in both meanings of the word). The show flings lots of character names, locations, and bits of exposition at you and expects you to keep up, it demands your full attention at all times and it’s easy to get confused at first. Thankfully, there’s Ned, our hero, our anchor, to stop us feeling completely lost at sea during this difficult period. We may not remember what his third son’s called, or what a Khaleesi is, but we know Ned and we know what he’s doing, so we can get by for now.

Introducing all these people and explaining the history of Westeros takes time, so the show is a bit of a slow-burn initially, but things pick up pace considerably by episode five, and there’s plenty to get the audience hooked.

The show has millions of dollars to spend, which means it can have huge sets, battles and special effects that would make feature film directors jealous, with a great soundtrack to match.

Despite the vast number of actors, there is rarely a bad performance amongst them, with Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams being some of the highlights, so it’s not difficult to care about these characters and their struggles.

The show’s storytelling is epic in the true sense of the word. The intricacy and the scope of the plot is really impressive, as the writers juggle dozens of plot-lines and character arcs from all over the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, with many of them developing and colliding in surprising ways. The show, and the book series that it’s based on, delights in taking typical fantasy tropes and twisting them into something completely unexpected.

As I said earlier, the day after a Game of Thrones episode airs, the internet is flooded with reactions, theories, and occasional bursts of incoherent outrage and shock, and it’s easy to see why. Game of Thrones is packed with shocking twists, cliffhangers, brutally-sudden deaths and awesome spectacle, making it one of those shows that people feel compelled to tell all their friends about, like Breaking Bad or LOST. Like those shows, each episode is feverishly anticipated and there’s a sense that anything could happen next.

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Hannibal

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Hannibal season two premièred on Sky Living this week, so let’s have a look at this disturbing, atmospheric drama’s first season.

The most striking thing about Hannibal is how it looks. It’s easily one of the most stylish dramas on television. The crime scenes and creepy bits are appropriately dark and dreary, but there are splashes of vibrant colour – the green grass, the blue sky, the blood-red, um, blood – that make even the nastiest murders look oddly beautiful. This jarring contrast is part of what makes the show so unnerving to watch. It also helps that Hannibal has some of the most disgustingly-creative crime scenes ever shown on TV.

The very first episode has a woman impaled on deer horns in a field (an idea that True Detective seems to have nicked for its own case), the second has corpses covered in mushrooms, and later episodes have a couple with their backs flayed open to look like skin wings, and there’s also a totem pole – a fucking totem pole – of corpses. And it’s all framed and filmed in such a way that it looks… nice? Like a painting, or a twisted piece of modern art. It’s horrific, but you can’t look away. I genuinely can’t believe they got away with showing some of this stuff on a non-HBO TV channel. Maybe the television executives were distracted by how pretty it looks.

So, for a show about a psychopathic serial killer, it’s very colourful. Even ordinary, everyday places that normally look mundane and uninteresting are bright and stark and eye-catching. Even some of Hannibal’s meals look appetising, until you remember what they are. Often, the show doesn’t quite look real, it looks like surreal art, or a dream.

Sometimes it is a dream. The visions and nightmares of honorary FBI agent Will Graham, an expert in the methodology of serial killers, occasionally interrupt an otherwise-ordinary scene- a cheap jump-scare, but an effective one.

Will’s special skill is getting into the mind of a killer. He walks onto a crime scene, has a look around, then imagines himself committing the crime, as a way of getting into the actual killer’s head. Knowing how and why killers kill people is a valuable skill for the FBI, but as we see, it doesn’t half mess up your mind. Poor Will is sent to crime scene after crime scene to work his magic and solve the case, but he can’t sleep at night and images of what he’s seen and imagined haunt him.

Luckily, help is at hand. His boss (Laurence Fishburne) has paired him up with a psychiatrist to help him deal with the stress and the horror of his new job. The psychiatrist is a quiet man, smartly-dressed, with a calm, soothing voice, and an accent that no one can really place. He looks a bit like Le Chiffre. His name is Hannibal Lecter.

Mads Mikkelsen is a very good Hannibal. His performance is not loud or crazy- quite the opposite, in fact. He lies and manipulates and pretends to care about his client, hiding his true madness under a blank, stern face that is damn-near unreadable. Most of the time, he’s in the background, quietly observing, studying, while Will does his stuff, or talks to him during one of their many therapy sessions. The slightest change in his facial expression can reveal so much about his true feelings. It’s difficult to imagine him doing that famous noise Hopkins’ Hannibal does in Silence of the Lambs.

He seems completely ordinary, and it seems completely plausible that none of his colleagues would have any idea that he’s such a psychopath. If his name didn’t rhyme with ‘cannibal’, if it was, say, Dave, you’d never suspect a thing. Though he does let a few ‘I’d love to have your parents for dinner’ jokes slip in now and again.

Hugh Darcy’s Will is also excellent. Jittery, anguished, but determined to do his job, he is the real star of the show. His therapy sessions with Dr Lecter are always a highlight of the episode, and watching him fall victim to Hannibal’s manipulation over the course of the season is heartbreaking, as he slowly becomes a broken man.

Will and Hannibal’s interactions are the real meat of the show, they’re the main course. The horrible-homicide-of-the-week cases are just side-dishes. The killer is almost always obvious and the case is wrapped up fairly quickly, leaving plenty of time for Hannibal and Will to discuss the aftermath and for us to see how much these cases are affecting Will’s already-fragile mental state.

The rest of the cast is good, too, with some great guest stars popping in during the first season (Hey, that’s Gillian Anderson! Hey, that’s… Eddie Izzard? What’s Eddie Izzard doing in this?).

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Orphan Black

orphan black

Season two of Orphan Black, a fun, fast-paced sci-fi show, starts on BBC Three this week, so let’s have a look at its stellar first season.

While on her way home to reunite with -and hopefully regain custody of – her daughter after almost a year away, our heroine Sarah, a rebellious punk with a criminal record and a murky past, notices a woman crying on the train platform. The woman takes off her high heels and her purse, puts them on the floor and glances at Sarah – they look identical. Without even blinking at this surprise, the woman turns away and walks right in front of an oncoming train. In the ensuing panic, Sarah does what any reasonable person would do – nick the woman’s stuff and run off.

And so begins Orphan Black, a fast-paced twisty-turny science-fiction drama anchored by a jaw-dropping performance by newcomer Tatiana Maslany, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Sarah pretends to be Beth to get Beth’s money – yeah, Sarah’s not the most likeable protagonist in the world – but quickly finds herself drawn into a complicated, crazy, and increasingly confusing series of events as she discovers who Beth was, what she did in the past, why she decided to kill herself and why she didn’t even flinch when confronted by her exact double.

Sarah also uses Beth’s suicide as a way of escaping her old life by making it seem like Sarah was the one who killed herself. Sarah does this with the help of her brother Felix, a man with the name of a cat, who isn’t too pleased with her actions but goes along with it because, hey, family.

As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Sarah also struggles to regain custody of her daughter Kira and deal with Vic, an old flame who’s involved in some dodgy dealings.

Sarah quickly realises that stealing Beth’s identity wasn’t the best idea, as she finds herself completely out of her depth, constantly caught in dire situations, always one mis-step away from everything falling apart. This is what makes Orphan Black so exciting and tense. The show delights in shoving Sarah into a tight corner and watching how she reacts. Beth’s colleagues and boyfriend notice that something’s a bit off, but can’t quite tell why. She’s convinced Vic that she’s dead, but he’s telling everyone else she knows, too, including her daughter. And as she scrambles to sort everything out, she’s contacted by another woman. Another woman that looks just like her. Except she has red hair. And she’s… German? What? What the hell is going on?

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