Category Archive for ‘film and tv’

Breaking Bad

Posted on March 24th, 2014 in film and tv

Phew.

I have, of course, entirely missed the boat on this, as ever, and no doubt it’s all been said already and the Sauron’s eye of popular culture moved on to fresh pastures.  But I just saw the final episode of Breaking Bad last night, and felt the need to muse a little on this extraordinary show.  I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers in the text but I can’t say the same for the comments, so if you haven’t seen it, just go and watch it.  Then come back.

There’s been a true revolution in television drama over the past decade or two.  It’s becoming almost old hat to assert that the small screen has taken over from the big as the place where exciting work is aired.  But even so it’s hard to think of long-running tv series that maintain their consistency, let alone present any kind of coherent arc from beginning to end.  Indeed the commercial imperatives of US TV make it likely shows will be kept going at least a little bit past their best.  The Shield had a fantastic first couple of seasons and a dynamite last, but sagged in the middle.  Battlestar Galactica produced two superb seasons, one reasonable one, then wandered off into the philosophical desert.  Deadwood was brilliant but meandering.  By the end it was clear the writers of Lost had been lost all along.

Breaking Bad’s first season – somewhat hamstrung by the writing strike – was maybe no better than promising, but since then it’s been brilliant, and the fifth and final season was truly stupendous, more or less every episode a proper corker packed with shocks, horrors, big moments and huge payoffs.  And it maintained its focus throughout, kept a steadily mounting pace in spite of the commercial pressures of tv, had a thematic purity that you very rarely see.  Bold in concept and meticulous in execution, it’s maybe the most impressive example of a single, focused story brought to long-form TV.  The closest you’ll come to a televised novel.

It’s an absolutely towering central performance from Bryan Cranston – hard these days to imagine as the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle – by turns pitiful, vile, likeable, self-defeating, terrifying, and yet somehow combining into a totally coherent and believable human.  You believe in him as a harassed and hopeless chemistry teacher.  You believe in him as a ruthless criminal mastermind.  By the end of the final series he’s done some truly appalling things but when he’s finally portrayed as a monster unmasked you feel his sense of injustice at it because each step along the path has been natural, believable, even inevitable, his righteous motives of providing for his family after his death mutating by deft degrees into greed, ambition, self-preservation and a driving desire to win by any means necessary, the nature of the show changing with him to cover new ground, a grander scale, and an ever darkening moral climate.

The  style undoubtedly developed over the course of the five series run, and became something truly exceptional I think.  It often seems understated because what the camera is pointing at is so humdrum, banal, routine.  There are long pauses, endless silences, in the desert of New Mexico, and in the deserts of the character’s emotional lives.  Wide shots are sometimes left punishingly long (often the mark of great editing is not intricate cutting, but the confidence to let one shot breathe).  There are strange, unsettling angles, weird fish eyes and points of view taken of smoke, equipment, cameras, faces looming disconcertingly into shot, distorted, monstrous.  There are concentrations on odd details, ultra close-ups, recurrent motifs that in some way encapsulate the message or theme of a given episode.  There are frequent glimpses of the past, reinterpreted with hindsight, and hints of what is to come whose horrible significance only becomes clear with time.  There are occasional barn-storming grandstand sequences, like the one in which ten witnesses are murdered in prison within two minutes to the merciless ticking of Walt’s lovely new watch, the use of sound reminding me of a classic sequence from John Boorman’s Point Blank, in which tension builds to the tapping of Lee Marvin’s shoes as he strides implacably to a reckoning.  Sometimes the visual inventiveness is far quieter – a brilliant moment in the final episode when Walt’s wife Skyla, sitting in her kitchen in static wide shot near a faux wood clad pillar, receives a phone call warning her that Walt might be on the way.  You begin to suspect that Walt is in fact already in the house.  In a more typical show he might have stepped out of a doorway or moved into shot as his wife put the phone down.  Here the camera begins to crawl inexorably forward, so that Walt is revealed, behind the pillar, as having been standing in the middle of the room the whole time.  

But, as with any great tv, or film, or books, it’s the characters that really make it.  The acting, and the writing, is great throughout.  It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t convince.  Walt overcomes a raft of psychos, thugs and gangsters through his ill-starred criminal career, but his most dangerous and memorable antagonists – Fring, Mike, Jessie at various times and in various ways and finally, awfully, inevitably, Hank – are all fully realised people, often admirable in their own ways, usually considerably more sympathetic than is Walt himself.  Walt is at times truly loathsome – small, vicious, selfish, manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious – and yet he remains human right to the end.  Indeed there is a kind of redemption in his desperate attempts to hold things together that his own actions have irrevocably blown apart.  He retains our sympathy because he remains utterly believable as a person, despite the fact he has done unforgivable things, then worse, then worse.

A masterpiece.

The Walking Dead Season 3

Posted on January 8th, 2014 in film and tv

I like the fundamentals of the Walking Dead a lot (zombies and extreme cynicism, what’s not to like?) but found the 2nd season, though enjoyable, not without its considerable flaws, chiefly some annoying characters, some treading of water, and a lot of attempts to squeeze drama from extreme stupid.  I’m pleased to say they cut out the dead wood, brought in some strong new characters, and amped up the tension considerably for a largely gripping 3rd season as the Andrew Lincoln-led survivors – leaner, meaner, more hardened, and with ever-dwindling reserves of humanity – take refuge in a zombie-infested prison and come into deadly conflict with the nearby town of Woodberry and its sinister Governor (a chilling performance from David Morrissey).  The dead are less and less the true danger, but the living always to be feared.

There’s still a slightly stagey sense about things – action mostly occurs in a couple of distinct locations with a lot of non-specific woods in between – but those locations have become bigger and more interesting than last season’s farm, at least.  The technicalities of zombification, and why some areas remain dramatically empty, others dramatically infested, are perhaps not best thought about too closely.  But they don’t make Battlestar Galactica’s mistake (or at least haven’t yet) of trying to explain what’s better left as the unexplainable threat, and instead concentrate on the effect on the characters of the constant pressure to survive.

Some of the weaker cast members (including one I thought would be with us for the long haul) are quickly and ruthlessly purged, and a lot of the stupid behaviour has been purged with them, the whole made tougher and more believable as a result.  There’s a welcome return for redneck troublemaker Merle and a great addition in emotionally stunted neo-samurai Michonne.  Some of Andrew Lincoln’s moral quandaries do feel somewhat contrived (if your struggle is between a realistic option and a moral one your realistic option has got to actually make sense), but in general the show is admirably hard-headed, unpredictable, unsentimental, and savage with its cast and audience.

 

 

2013 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2013 in film and tv, games, opinion, process, progress, reading, reviews

Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE.  Three cheers, anyone?

Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today.  It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001.  Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe.  Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer…  An interesting year this has been.  Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.

Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain.  No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women.  The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now.  Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever.  Which is nice.  I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail.  I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here.  It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end.  Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time.  I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories.  Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…

BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom.  Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity.  I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth.  Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back.  Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher.  Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…

TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days.  Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January.  Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me.  I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much.  Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep.  Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way.  Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching.  The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE.  Ah, well.  TV was a great deal more promising.  Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start.  Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising.  Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series.  Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock.  The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing.  The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned.  Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more.  Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6.  I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to.  Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights.  You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions.  Brilliant Stuff.  I’m tearing up again!  Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man!  Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year.  Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative.  The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines.  For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls.  Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it.  The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time.  In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.

BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to.  Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more.  It seems more honest in the main.  I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics.  Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…

CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument.  There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer.  That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year.  I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…

Happy new year, readers!

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

Posted on December 28th, 2013 in film and tv

Well, overall a pretty entertaining way to spend an afternoon at the cinema, and a good deal better than An Unexpected Journey, I would say, which I found pretty disappointing about this time last year.  This second two and a half hour instalment has some great sequences, some good performances and a stupendous Smaug, but follows a pretty similar formula, namely taking the bare bones of Tolkien’s really quite slight original and bloating them up, steroid-popping bodybuilder style, to twelve times their original size, losing their charm and personality along the way and replacing them with MASSIVE SPECTACLE to rival the MASSIVE SPECTACLE which was PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.  Hand me the script pump, cause we’ve got us some serious inflating to do.  Things scarcely alluded to in the text are laid out before us in ponderous and often rather unconvincing detail.  Sometimes with bird poo in their hair.  MASSIVE BIRD POO.  New characters are tossed cavalierly into the mix and familiar ones are backstorified like there’s no front story to worry about.  Every trip or minor scare becomes a lengthy CGI-heavy action interlude.  And everything is made TWICE DOUBLE AS HUMONGOUS AS IT WAS IN PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.

I must confess, though, the additions, though probably a good deal more offensive to the purist than last time, were at least a great deal less tedious, sometimes even quite sensible.  The introduction of ass-kicking elf-maiden Tauriel and her attendant elf/dwarf love triangle could have been cringingly bad, but actually I didn’t mind it, and if you’re going to go off-piste, then adding maybe a female character or two in the entire world is not a bad thing to do to the Hobbit.  Additional time with Thranduil and Bard was well spent.  There also seemed to be a bit more sense made of the Arkenstone, Thorin’s hunger for it, and Bilbo’s decision not to give it to him.  A suicidal trip by Gandalf to find out something he was 99% sure of already made absolutely no sense and was totally pointless, mind you.  The design was predictably brilliant, one would have to say, though Beorn looked a bit weird, didn’t he?  And what about those prosthetic dwarf hands?  In mid shot the dwarves would all be standing about rather awkwardly looking as if they had hairy pink washing up gloves on.

What I found a lot more peculiar than the additions were the subtractions.  You’d think, with so little material to work with and so much time to fill, they’d damn well clutch every straw Tolkien wrote for them.  But gone was the black stream in Mirkwood, gone was Gandalf’s trick of introducing the dwarves to Beorn two by two, gone were a lot of the subtleties.  In their place we got ACTION.  ACTION TO RIVAL THE TOWERING ACTION OF PETER JACKSON’S ACTIVE ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.  It really didn’t rival Lord of the Rings, though.  Generally there was way too much CGI for my taste, and the action had lost any sense of shock, impact and danger, often it was pretty hard to really follow what was going on with the plunging camera angles and writhing CGId heroes.  The barrel ride became an interminable white water barrel-themed fight with super-graceful hopping elves and roley-poley funny dwarves getting the best of what struck me as not very well CGId Orcish Hordes.  Then we had the weighty additions of an interminable fight between super-graceful hopping elves and not very well CGId Orcish Hordes on the rooftops of Laketown which I must have missed last time I read the book, and an even lengthier fight between roley-poley funny dwarves and a brilliantly voiced and CGId dragon, with the forges of Erebor re-imagined as a gigantic theme-park ride which I definitely missed in the book, and which ended inexplicably with Smaug deciding to leave the dwarves in possession of the mountain and flapping off to Laketown.  A MASSIVE DRAGON FLYING AT A MASSIVE LAKETOWN TO RIVAL THE MASSIVENESS OF ETC. ETC.

Everything was outsize.  Smaug’s hoard has become a veritable mountain under the mountain.  I mean that dragon really has got himself A METRIC MOTHERFUCKTON OF GOLD DOWN THERE.  Dol Guldur ain’t so much a ruined tower as A SPRAWLING RUINED SORCEROUS ULTRA-CITY full of skulls and spikes and crumbly bridges and cages from Evil Wizards r Us that leaves you wondering why Sauron chose to downsize to Barad Dur.  Bard’s Black Arrow, rather than being, you know, an arrow, is THE LAST GIANT RIFLING HARPOON TALLER THAN A MAN which has to be shot not from, you know, a bow, but from THE LAST OF THE GIANT DWARVEN FOUR-ARMED MEGA BALLISTAS ON TOP OF A HUGE TOWER.  One scratches one’s head because, quaint though this may sound, bigger really isn’t always better.  The best moments were often the small things – Thorin’s profile matched against the great stone profile of his grandfather’s statue as he says he’s nothing like his grandfather, Thranduil getting all tetchy and elven-weird in his tree-root halls, or the nimble details of Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo which might actually have worked even better if the hoard behind him was, I dunno, just the size of a large hill.  Everything was made EPIC.  Rather than just following Bilbo, and when people leave him, letting them go, we followed Thranduil after we left the elf kingdom, followed Fili and Kili when they were left behind in Laketown, followed Gandalf on his ridiculous one man expedition into Dol Guldur.  Loads of weighty strands all going on at the same time?  That’s not really the Hobbit, that’s Lord of the Rings.

Look, it’s better than the last film.  Look, it’s a fun way to pass an afternoon.  Look, it has some wonderful design, and some great visual ideas, and some pretty creditable performances.  But it’s not very memorable.  It doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  A childish tale of fun with the funny dwarves and their naturalistic charming hobbit companion?  A weighty and pompous prequel Lord of the Rings doesn’t need?  A stirring action adventure with a short leading man?  In the end what I loved about Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings was that, in spite of what he cut and what he added, in spite of the small liberties and the amped-up action, he somehow achieved the alchemical balancing act of making the films feel like The Lord of the Rings.  What I don’t like about Jackson’s adaptations of the Hobbit is that they just don’t feel like The Hobbit.

AT ALL.

Recent TV

Posted on December 23rd, 2013 in film and tv

Long time since I went over my telly watching, particularly considering how much telly I watch.  What have we seen of late?

The Killing Season 3: Hmmmm. The first season of this Danish procedural was great, the second pretty good, with the obsessive personality of Sarah Lund, the central character, always the backbone.  But it always did suffer slightly from spinning the wheels too long, sending you off down different blind alleys endlessly until you reached the point where no outcome was really surprising.  With this final series they managed to come up with a surprising ending, alright, but not in a good way. It worked well enough up until the final 10 minutes, at which point everyone suddenly behaved in a completely bizarre manner, utterly out of character, to create one of the most frustrating and disappointing non-endings I’ve ever seen on a series…

Borgen Season 3: More from the Danes, this time a third season of West Wing style political hijinks.  They change things up admirably this time around, with central character Birgitte Nyborg suddenly out of power and facing a whole new set of challenges in her attempts to get back in.  Some occasionally obvious outcomes, some sub-plots that work better than others, but generally there are strong characters and performances throughout, and rarely any simple answers.  During its run the West Wing seemed to become more and more absurdly idealistic, deviating further and further from what was actually going on in american politics at the time.  Borgen is all about the centre ground – about deals, about compromises, about grey areas – and it’s all the stronger for it.

Hell on Wheels Seasons 1 and 2: I was expecting this slightly offbeat western series, centring on an ex-confederate soldier who gets caught up in the violence and politics surrounding the attempt to link the east and west coasts by rail to be, well, a bit shit. But actually it’s pretty good, on the whole. Colm Meaney is always reliable as the scheming tycoon in charge, and a chilling turn from Christopher Heyerdahl as his nutcase sidekick the Swede. Not every character, subplot or, indeed, accent, is equally compelling, but once you’ve accepted that it ain’t no Deadwood it bangs along pretty nicely, with some snappy dialogue and philosophical digressions along the way.  Looking forward to the next season, and I hear it’s already been renewed for a fourth.

Grey’s Anatomy Season 3,261: I don’t watch it, but my wife assures me it goes from strength to strength…

Only God Forgives

Posted on December 12th, 2013 in film and tv

Nicloas Winding Refn sure is an interesting director, and one I very much admire.  He really does like to teeter on the knife edge between profundity and pretentiousness, though.  Valhalla Rising, in spite of the never-knowingly-overchiselled Mads Mikkelsen, I found a frustrating mixture of fascinating and wilfully obscure to the point of utter tedium.  But crazy and colourful Bronson I liked a lot, and Drive I liked even more.  Ryan Gosling’s moody silences and lingering glances seemed full of depth in that film, the electro-score and neon darkness totally fitting, the supporting characters vivid and surprising, the action explosive and shocking.

You’ve got to admire that after being within a hair of commercial Hollywood glory with Drive, Refn has made a staunchly art house and uncommercial film with this surreal gangster revenge piece in moody, evil Bangkok.  Sadly, that was pretty much all I did admire about it.  In a way Only God Forgives is very much like Drive, but with the pretentiousiser dialled all the way up to BORING.  Lots of moody neon and swelling electro again, but now the script is so pared back as to be virtually non-existent.  Gosling’s silences are longer than ever, but seem to betoken emptiness rather than depth, and oddly juxtaposed with a strangely blaring and brassy performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as his mother.  The violence is very ultra.  Much splatter!  Such super schlock!  But at the moments that were meant to be most shocking I actually just felt like laughing.  The film is short, but bloody hell it doesn’t feel short.  Blatant symbolism abounds, but to what end I’m really not sure.  Ryan Gosling sits in a bar, staring at his hands.  The Angel of Death sings bad Karaoke under red paper lanterns.  Ryan Gosling stands in a foyer, staring at his hands.  Someone gets their arm chopped off with a gout of splurge.  The camera tracks, tracks, tracks endlessly back down a David Lynch style moody corridor for the seventh time.  Back, and back, and back it tracks, like they accidentally left the brake off, and you just can’t believe the editor is going to let that shot of Ryan Gosling staring at his hands go on any longer.

Then it does.

Maybe it all went over my head.  Maybe I’m getting old.

Sometimes I just like it when the characters speak, you know?

The Walking Dead Series 2

Posted on October 24th, 2013 in film and tv

Yeah, I know I’m way behind, but so it goes. Don’t spoiler me, people.

Enjoyed this quite a lot, actually, though not without its weaknesses.  I’d heard it was rather a limited/small scale/disappointing season and, yeah, they did use smaller locations and tread water quite a bit, but it still delivered on the basic premise – people adapting to immense pressures, struggling with the apocalypse, and occasionally being torn apart by zombies.  As basic premises go, it’s a goddamn winner, with tension inherent in every empty building, abandoned car, stretch of woodland, and one area they never really compromise on are the zombies themselves, which have rarely looked better (or worse).

Writing’s really rather uneven, though.  There’s a fair bit of drama squeezed from sulking and arguing over personal minutiae that surely would be a little bit moot at the end of the world.  Then there’s a lot, and I mean a LOT, of that hoary old horror standby: characters doing really ridiculous shit in order to create situations that need to be solved, usually involving wandering off on their own for reasons that seem absolutely incomprehensible/no real reason at all, even though character X previously got ripped apart by zombies doing exactly that and afterwards there was a big meeting in which everyone said ‘let’s never wander off on our own for really ridiculous reasons, eh?’  This is somewhat eye-rolling of itself, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of undermining your sympathy and, indeed, belief in the characters too.  I HAVE NO PATIENCE WITH PEOPLE WHO BEHAVE LIKE THIS.  Not helping either is that generally these moments of plot-specific stupidity are inflicted by the women and children, which tends to create a rather unhelpful vibe of tetchy, inconsistent, emotional and useless women and children of the group producing noble/ignoble/incompetent reactions in the heroic/villainous/incompetent men of the group.

Quality of acting is pretty patchy as well, with characters feeling like they wandered out of a range of different TV programmes and were arbitrarily combined in this one.  Gravitas, weight and believability from the likes of old timer Scott Wilson.  From some of the younger cast . . . less.  The realities of the zombie-plague and state of the world are best not considered in too much depth either – huge swarms in one spot but a couple of miles away they haven’t even had to board up their windows?  Desperate conservation of ammunition one moment, popping off practice rounds like there’s no tomorrow the next?  Scavenging out a bleak existence near the city with every can of beans or drop of petrol like gold, a few miles further on, meat on the hoof and lights running as normal?  But, as with Battlestar Galactica, the premise works best when you don’t think too closely, and concentrate on the reaction of the people to it.  And that reaction is, at times, splendidly ruthless, vile, and unsentimental.  I’m the type of guy who always found Saruman more interesting than Gandalf, Boromir more interesting than Aragorn, and it’s the conflicted, mixed, suspect characters here that become the most interesting.

Sure, creeping around in woods and bludgeoning zombies’ skulls in can be entertaining, but whether people can retain their humanity in a world where moment to moment survival is a desperate struggle is really the central question of the show, and it’s when it tackles that question that it’s most powerful.  Similar ground to that which the Last of Us covered so effectively, and the Walking Dead manages some powerful and shocking moments of its own.  I can’t think of many shows that succeed for me so well despite being so mixed as far as my liking for the characters and the writing goes.  But then I can forgive a lot in something with such a bold and ruthless lack of sentiment.  And zombies.

Friday Night Lights

Posted on August 23rd, 2013 in film and tv

If you’d told me a couple of years back that a series about a High School Football team in a Texas small town would have become one of my favourite TV series of all time, right up there alongside stuff like The Wire, Deadwood, the Shield, Breaking Bad and the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica (but not the other three, no, no, no), I would have laughed in your face.

And it’s hard to talk about the plotlines of Friday Night Lights without making it sound … a little bit rubbish and a big bit banal.  A high school football coach struggles with the huge expectations of the community.  A car salesman messes up his marriage.  A star quarterback is put out of action and his lame-ass understudy must step up.  A promising young athlete puts his future on the line fooling with performance enhancing drugs.  A guy with a bad rep does the decent thing and escorts a young girl home, her father sees him putting her to bed and gets way the wrong idea, and etc. etc.  The subject matter is the stuff of many a high school soap opera, and in many ways that’s exactly what Friday Night Lights is.

So what makes it so totally brilliant?  I guess it’s an accumulation of little things done very, very well.  Superb casting for a start off, centred around ace performances from Kyle Chandler as inspirational-pre-game-talk-meister-par-excellence Coach Taylor and Connie Britton as his troubled-youth-redeeming wife, but extending to pretty much everyone else anywhere in the series, kid or adult.  Then there’s great music, great pacing, a fantastic sense of place and an occasionally really dark picture of small-town America, all delivered in a really cleverly executed documentary-esque visual style.

Though many of the plots and events are cliche, the setting, the characters and their relationships never are.  There are no cartoon villains, just mismatched people with their conflicting obsessions, problems, and mistakes, usually trying to do their flawed best in one way or another.  There’s a truthfulness about the whole thing, an honesty and a reality that you just so rarely see in this type of show.  Everything feels from the heart.  It goes for the big emotions and it god damn hits them, pretty much every time. The great TV of recent years has excited me, horrified me, made me think, but it’s rarely choked me up.  Friday Night Lights has me complaining about imaginary dust in my eye every other episode.

Downsides?  Bit shaky in the second season, with a somewhat shark-jumping murder plot that seems way out of place and a bit of a loss of focus, with different characters all following their own not always believable threads to an arbitrary halt called by the writers’ strike.  But things come back strong in the third season, then they make an inspired change-up to give the fourth and fifth a very different mood and setting, but one that in some ways spreads out the investigation to further, tougher areas.  It felt just a little like the Wire, which started with drug-dealing but then expanded season by season to look at different parts of the system – politics, rehabilitation, education, the media.  Friday Night Lights is smaller, more intimate, less heavy on its messages, but still pokes at some dark corners of American life.  And it’s decidedly realistic and un-judgemental in its treatment of its teenage characters.  They drink, they screw around, sometimes they mess up big and sometimes they come through big.

Unlike so much of the recent wave of great TV, Friday Night Lights is feel good. That’s not to say it’s easy or soft, it throws some hard stuff at its characters, it tackles some serious issues, people don’t always win, don’t always come out on top.  But it celebrates the good in people, the desire to do the decent thing, to stand by your family and your friends and your team-mates (I’m choking up, god damn it).  The sports sequences are often incredibly cheesy – glorious victories snatched in the dying seconds by some heroic action of whichever character’s struggles have been highlighted that episode – but after a while that seemed to suit the underlying thesis: you can be a golden hero on the football field, save your team and do your touchdown dance, but once the friday night lights are turned off, in real life there are no easy answers and no simple endings.

As Coach Taylor is so fond of saying, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.’

Recent TV

Posted on August 6th, 2013 in film and tv

Seems like a while since I reviewed my recent TV watching.  Recent in my having watched it, mark you, not necessarily it having been made recently.  What have we had…?

The Returned – A french-import supernatural thriller in which people known to have died suddenly reappear, remembering nothing, in a small french town, with shattering results on the lives of those that knew them.  Simultaneously there are strange goings on with a dam that burst years before, a serial killer who strikes in an underpass, a host of dead animals in a reservoir and etc. etc. It begins as a fascinating premise, deftly, moodily, scarily handled with great acting, bags of style and a superb soundtrack, and for the first five episodes or so as the mysteries piled up I thought I was watching something really amazing. But then it felt like it started to lose its way, and ended its 8 episode arc without a single thread resolved or single mystery solved. I’ll certainly watch another series, but the experiences of Twin Peaks, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica have not given me great faith in programme-makers who always seem to dangle the truth just out of reach…

Hannibal – Ooh, this was good, though. A sort-of-prequel to the Hannibal Lector films inspired by the fiction of Thomas Harris.  FBI Investigator Will Graham has an uncanny ability to get into the minds of serial killers – perhaps because he is one. Ultra-suave gastronome psychiatrist Hannibal is brought in to ensure he stays on the righteous path but has, as we the audience can all guess from the beginning, other plans.  Once you accept that this is a kind of parallel dimension in which police agencies have great furniture and New England has more serial killers than traffic wardens, it’s great.  The plot wriggles like a worm cut in half, styling and design is superb, truly filmic in quality, with lots of great editing and visual devices.  I feel like I’ve seen plenty of serial killer nastiness and a lot of unsettling dream sequences in my time but they manage to push the envelope with both, reality dissolving as Will goes off the rails. It’s all underpinned by three excellent central performances: Hugh Dancy in increasingly sweaty desperation as Will Graham, Laurence Fishburne as his driven boss, and Mads Mikkelsen shinily terrifying and yet weirdly sympathetic as Hannibal – in some ways it’s a total gimme as a role, but he manages to do something totally different from the Hopkins or Cox interpretations yet just as memorable. They end the season in a very interesting place and I’m much looking forward to the next, already in production, apparently.

The Good Wife, Season 4 - Yes, yes, it’s an awfully long way from what I write, but I actually really like this.  It’s broad-appeal legal drama, on the face of it, and there are some deeply naff sub-plots that we could do without, but it’s sharp, it’s clever, it’s generally well-acted and scripted, it’s surprising enough to keep you on your toes.  It’s not coddling.  Politics and law are shown to be dirty businesses in which there are rarely easy answers and everyone’s at least a little tainted, sometimes a lot.

Justified, Season 3 – Interesting, Justified.  In some ways it’s a very traditional sort of series, with Timothy Olyphant’s wisecracking stetson-wearing marshal Raylan Givens refusing to play by the rules in corralling a colourful array of deep south criminals.  It’s based on an Elmore Leonard short story, though, and I don’t know how involved he is in the writing but his mastery of quick-sketch character work and fast-draw dialogue really translates.  Every thug, stooge and scumbag has a personality, acting and script are generally sharp as tacks and the show regularly serves up some hilarious moments.  ‘Why deputy, are you accusing me of not being a real blond?’  They’ve got a great habit for rotating old characters back in as well, and have built up a real rogue’s gallery of widely assorted bastards, striking sparks from Givens and each other.  Plus there’s everyone’s old favourite from the Shield, Walton Goggins, as Givens’ backwoods nemesis.  Maybe a mite disposable in the last analysis, but certainly an entertaining way to while away the hours.

Django Unchained

Posted on July 16th, 2013 in film and tv

Yes, yes, not very topical, I know, but with time at a premium I only just got around to tackling the well nigh 3 hours of this – why the hell must everything be so ass-numblingly long these days?

I find Tarantino a rather frustrating film-maker, to say the least. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – stunning work. The fusion of free-wheeling banality with explosive violence and narrative inventiveness made a deep impression on me when they appeared.  But since then, I’ve found it hard to like what he’s produced.  Inglorious Basterds seemed mostly a self-indulgent shambles, foundering under the weight of its own self-referential cleverness.

Django is way, way better, for me, though it doesn’t get near the heights of his early work.  It’s over-long, to my mind, but there’s a plot, some great scenes and some strong performances.  It’s an homage to the spaghetti western, I guess, with Django recast as an escaped slave searching for vengeance and his wife in the pre-civil war South.  The worst excesses of crazy captions, odd sound effects and bizarre digressions have been hauled in – Tarantino still has some peculiar habits of focusing on weird details in the editing that I find distracting, but the film felt pretty much on point, one could even call it a sequence of scenes together creating a story, and for two hours it kicked along and I really enjoyed it.  But then he did somewhat the same thing he’d done in Inglorious Basterds – though admittedly a lot further in – by mounting a strange, very intricate and long-winded denouement three quarters of the way through in which the most interesting characters are killed.  There’s certainly a degree to which that’s a challenging, shocking, interesting, perhaps even a realistic narrative choice.  But there’s a larger degree to which it leaves your film feeling a little uninteresting for the not insignificant amount of time you’ve got left.

Cristoph Waltz totally steals the show, again, as Django’s Bounty Hunting Dentist Mentor, Leonardo Di Caprio I thought was great as the sadistic plantation owner and no one does a Samuel L Jackson impression like Samuel L Jackson.  Jamie Fox was given a thankless role as Django, mind you, oddly a bystander in his own film.  Waltz must have had half the lines and Di Caprio half the rest with Jackson taking most of the leftovers.  For a surprising amount of time, the eponymous Django was just a guy in the room.  Now Clint Eastwood can boss a western from that position, but a true spaghetti western – a Sergio Leone film, say, is all about the silence, and a Tarantino film is all about the talk.  Waltz did all the talking and hence made all the impact, for large stretches Fox was just a cutaway.  Kerry Washington had an even more thankless task as Django’s wife.  She barely registered, a plot device if ever there was one, existing in order to be hurt and humiliated and therefore demonstrate how villainous her abusers were.  We were nominally watching a film about their journey to freedom but most of what we got was an amusing character study of Waltz and a fencing-match between him and DiCaprio.  Little real sense emerged of either Django or his wife as characters, let alone of the relationship that was supposedly the engine of the plot, so when they were left to carry the film themselves, there wasn’t much left to carry.  It felt like we were given a strong two hours, but were left in the last act with a standoff between the hero’s sidekick and the villain’s henchmen.

But, hey, I’d far rather that than watch Inglorious Basterds again…