Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Tropic Blunder

Ben Stiller has a new movie out: Tropic Thunder. I'm sure many of you have seen it. I went to see it last Saturday. The screening was at 7.30pm. Owing to the annoying lateness of my fellow moviegoers, all three of us were 10 minutes late to the Empire cinema...

The foyer was suspiciously empty, so we had to buy our tickets from the popcorn seller. In Screen 3, the film was already in full swing as we crept in -- forced to take a seat in the neck-breaking third row. Within 5 minutes I had a terrible headache. I was half urging the film to end, which is never good. After what seemed like 30 minutes, Tom Cruise danced and the credits rolled. We noticed the credits listed Steve Coogan, who we hadn't even seen in the film!

Tropic Thunder didn't appear to be that funny, but maybe the missing 10-minutes were full of brilliance and scene-setting we sorely missed and desperately needed. The next day, I checked the cinema listings again -- something niggling away in my mind about the infuriating experience. Then it all became clear: Tropic Thunder started at 7, not 7.30! We had missed a whole 40 minutes! Even assuming there were 15 minutes of adverts and trailers, we had missed a sizeable chunk of the set-up. At work on Monday, a colleague who had seen Tropic Thunder rubbed salt into the wound by telling me the first half-hour contained all the funny bits.

So, a very frustrating situation all round. And it inspired a question: are ticket sellers at the box-office allowed to sell tickets for a film they KNOW started 40 minutes ago? Shouldn't they have mentioned that fact, at the very least? Did they really think we wanted to spend £23 on a film that started nearly an hour ago? Twats.

Consequently, my planned theatrical review of Tropic Thunder will have to wait until its disc release, so I can watch the first half. But the funniest thing I saw was a Vietnamese toddler crossing his arms and frowning. Oh, and Tom Cruise was good.

TRUE BLOOD 1.4 - "Escape From Dragon House"

Writer: Brian Buckner
Director: Michael Lehman

Cast: Anna Paquin (Sookie), Ryan Kwanten (Jason), Stephen Moyer (Bill), Sam Trammell (Sam), Tara (Rutina Wesley), Alexander Skarsgard (Eric), Gary Kraus (Married Man), Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette), Chris Bauer (Andy Bellefleur) & William Sanderson (Bud)

Who would have thought a writer for chirpy sitcom Friends would turn in the best episode yet of vampire drama True Blood? Betraying his previous TV experience, writer Brian Buckner's "Escape From Dragon House" definitely sets out to tickle funnybones, eliciting welcome guffaws of laughter. It even successfully introduces frat boy sex-comedy…

The main source of fun is tapped with Jason (Ryan Kwanten), who is arrested on suspicion of murder, after finding his girlfriend Dawn dead in her bedroom. Realizing he still has a vial of vampire blood about his person (purchased from Lafayette to act as a sexual stimulant), Jason unwisely gulps down the potion and spends his police interview with a crippling erection. The sex comedy interludes with Jason, particularly when he seeks medical help on the advice of Tara (Rutina Wesley), actually work surprisingly well. Kwanten has proven himself a committed performer, and he takes to this comedy of embarrassment scenario with spirited gusto.

Meanwhile, Sookie (Anna Paquin) asks for Bill's (Stephen Moyer) help in finding the killer currently stalking Bon Temps. The pair subsequently go on a "date" to an out-of-town vampire bar called Fangtasia (old vampires have a predilection for puns, apparently), where Sookie turns Nancy Drew to try and figure out who would want to kill Maudette and Dawn. It's here that we meet another key player in the show's blossoming mythology -- egotistical vampire elder Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), who takes a shine to Sookie after she warns him of a police raid using her mind-reading.

In terms of plot, that's pretty much it. But what it lacks in complexity and depth, it gains in entertainment value and memorable sequences -- like Jason's dash to the police toilet, the whole Fangtasia segment, a riveting scene where Bill "glamours" a cop who rudely interrupts his conversation with Sookie, and a heartwarming moment where mind-reader Sookie finds someone thinking kindly of dead Dawn (for her, an oasis in the cesspool of dark thoughts usually suffocating Merlotte's bar.)

There are also a few weird moments with Sam (Sam Trammell) that once again has me convinced he can shape-shift into a dog, despite the fact last week's episode appeared to nip that line of thinking in the bud. How else do you explain his bizarre behaviour in the final scene, though? The only moment of "Escape From Dragon House" that didn't fit snugly into place was a misplaced flashback to Tara's childhood -- showing how she took refuge at a young Jason's house when pursued by her drunken mother. While it was nice to see why she has such affection for nymphomaniac Jason (he actually stood up and protected her), the flashback wasn't necessary and probably should have waited for a better context.

Overall, "Escape From Dragon House" was an enjoyable and funny hour of incidents. It fleshed-out the vampire subculture a bit more, introduced a mysterious new character in Eric, provided Jason with some hilarious material, and devised a way to get Anna Paquin looking glamorous. It's not perfect by any means, but there's a playful sense of mischief here that was fun to watch. I'm enjoying the slow-burn nature of True Blood, too -- let's hope the inevitable explosion of drama is worth the wait.

Intriguingly, this is the first episode series creator Alan Ball didn't write. Make of that what you will, but True Blood looks like it's turning a corner.


28 September 2008
HBO, 9pm

MERLIN 1.2 - "Valiant"

Writer: Howard Overman
Director: James Hawes

Cast: Colin Morgan (Merlin), Bradley James (Prince Arthur), Richard Wilson (Gaius), Anthony Head (King Uther Pendragon), Angel Coulby (Gwen), Katie McGrath (Morgana), John Hurt (The Great Dragon, voice), Will Mellor (Valiant), Keith Thorne (Ewan), Andy Linden (Devlin), Ed Coleman (Morris) & Nicholas Gasson (Steward)

"Valiant" just about goes the distance, but the storyline is thin and predictable for anyone over the age of 10. The eponymous knight Valiant (Will Mellor) has a dastardly plan to kill Prince Arthur (Bradley James) -- using a magic shield that can sprout real snakes, which he'll command to deliver a fatal bite in the midst of close-combat during a tournament. Needless to say, Merlin (Colin Morgan) realizes Valiant's using illegal magic but struggles to be believed as a lowly servant...

The disappointing thing about Merlin right now (accepting its irksome tweaks to Arthurian legend -- such as the existence of Camelot before Arthur's reign), is how it appears to be aimed only at children. As family entertainment, it's pleasant enough for parents to sit through, but the current benchmarks of its genre are Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter -- and it's simply not in that league of entertainment.

Robin Hood also struggled (more noticeably in season 1) with delivering plots that older teens and adults could enjoy, keeping things too light and pleasant so as not to frighten or confuse kids. But with bloody battles filling much of the Rings trilogy and the Potter franchise going into very dark territory post-Azkaban, it's annoying to see a show like Merlin being so toothless.

The great secret to kid's television is that children like to be pushed and have their horizons expanded. The best shows are written by adults who refuse to dumb things down, and instead challenge kids to keep up. At the moment, Merlin is too safe and comfortable with its pantomime back-story and glistening white castles. Shouldn't this be a time of darkness, evil and danger --inspiring Merlin to help Arthur usher in a world of chivalry? Maybe things will become more textured and interesting as we go along, but at the moment Merlin lacks a killer punch. The Hallmark mini-series Merlin (starring Sam Neill) was twice as entertaining and imaginative, yet within the ability of the BBC to replicate on a weekly basis. Lessons clearly haven't been learned from the muted response to Hood's ineffectual rethink.

Colin Morgan is agreeable and charming as the lead, thank goodness. You can imagine him becoming quite an intense adult as his abilities increase, too. But are we to believe Merlin will become the world's most powerful warlock simply by secretly reading a dusty book and re-enacting The Sorcerer's Apprentice every day? I think they missed a trick in not making Gaius (Richard Wilson) a Dumbledore figure, don't you? Instead we have a crabby man in a bad wig, moaning whenever Merlin uses the book he was given!

Elsewhere, there was mild improvement from Bradley James as Arthur, after his worryingly bland debut last week. The same can't be said of guest star Will Mellor (Two Pints And A Packet Of Crisps), who is utterly insipid as Valiant. While physically a decent fit for the role, Mellor is awkward in nearly every other respect. He looked plain embarrassed when required to kiss Morgana's (Katie McGrath) hand, such was the cliché of the gesture.

The story could also have been told in 20 minutes, meaning "Valiant" became something of a chore to sit through in its second half -- not helped by the fact everything wrapped up exactly as expected, with no surprises. If future episodes follow the pattern that seems to be emerging already (a magical threat to Camelot or its people, but Merlin saves the day using his own covert magic) then the show will become very boring very quickly.

Overall, if you're happy for Merlin to be aimed at the under-10s and just provide a bit of colourful nonsense, "Valiant" is proof that Merlin will be the show for you. But, if you'd like something a bit meatier and rewarding, that gets kids thinking and gripped by unexpected twists and clever imagination, this second episode doesn't offer any nourishment. Considering there are so many fantasy-themed books and films around for inspiration, it's rather dispiriting to find Merlin isn't producing something more relevant and complex that both kids and adults will enjoy. But, y'know, if green CGI snakes, Will Mellor scowling and beautiful locations are all you're really after… abracadabra!


27 September 2008
BBC1, 6pm

Monday, 29 September 2008

STRICTLY COME DANCING 6 – Week 2

TV time-saving tip: don't bother watching SCD on Saturdays, just catch the Sunday results show. They recap the whole thing, include a side-order of professional dances, and obviously give the phone vote result without a 24-hour wait. If any of the celeb dances pique your interest, you can always watch them on YouTube in their entirety, too. Result, no?

After last week's men's only start, it was ladies night for the celebrity girls...

JESSIE WALLACE & Darren Bennett
I don't think Jellie's, er Jessie's, especially attractive, but she has a cheeky wildcat attitude that's appealing. She certainly made a decent start, in a gold frilly dress with short skirt showing lots of chunky leg. Very wiggly and fun, if not very disciplined. Shame about the Flavia-like hairdo, too.

GILLIAN TAYLFORTH & Anton Du Beke
Another EastEnder, but from a past era of that soap. To be fair, Gillian's quite good-looking for her age, and her worst aspect (that husky cockney voice) is mostly avoided in a dance competition. Here, she went for a long yellow dress that hid whatever lurks beneath, wearing her hair up. Stylish, but not that sexy.

LISA SNOWDON & Brendan Cole
This year's prime piece of eye-candy, Lisa certainly made her mark with a tight-fitting silver/black sequined dress that showed off every millimetre of her fabulous legs. A tiny skirt that lifted considerably in spins only added to the whole effect. Gorgeous.

JODIE KIDD & Ian Waite
Another hottie, but Jodie was sadly stuck with a long, flowing white dress and '20s-era hair. Still, hopefully this statuesque blonde bombshell will show some flesh next week. Disappointing start, have to say.

HEATHER SMALL & Brian Fortuna
Hm. I just don't fancy her in the slightest – to many manly features for me, although that awful green dress at least boosted her cleavage.


CHRISTINE BLEAKLEY & Matthew Cutler
A dark horse of the competition, methinks. Another saucepot stuck with a long dress, although her smiley demeanour and graceful performance left a mark.


RACHEL STEVENS & Vincent Simone
The tabloids reports that the former S Clubber is against wearing anything too revealing, which is a bad sign. But, even though her aquamarine dress wasn't the skimpiest in the world, the petite popstar filled it out very well. Beautiful features with fluid and sexy moves – she should be dynamite if her tailor is allowed to cut loose. More flesh, Rach!

CHERIE LUNGHI & James Jordan
The MILF of the group, in an apple green dress. A very graceful, refined performance. Not very sexy, but I like her sense of class and style. If I was 20 years older...


"WALK THIS WAY" DANCE
The three international new dancers to SCD got to strut their stuff, with American Brian Fortuna the lucky dog who got a dancing threesome with Russian Kristina Rihanoff and Kiwi babe Hayley Holt. The girls really cut loose with a super sexy dance routine, in tight black dresses that hugged all the right curves. Awe-some.

THE DANCE-OFF
Jodie Kidd or Gillian Taylforth? Well, I know who I'd prefer to see dancing next week, and I luckily got my wish. Gillian became the second celeb to leave the dance floor. I won't be crying over her absence, although I do feel sorry for poor Anton Du Beke. That guy is continually being lumbered with bad dancers. It's about time he demands to be given someone half-decent to work with. Maybe next year, Ant?

27 September 2008 – BBC1, 6.45pm
28 September 2008 – BBC1, 8pm

FRINGE 1.3 - "The Ghost Network"

Writers: David H. Goodman & J.R Orci
Director: Fred Toye

Cast: Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles), John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), Kirk Acevedo (Charlie Francis), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp), Zak Orth (Roy McComb), Mark Valley (John Scott), Peggy Scott (Mrs. Scott), David Lansbury (Businessman), Donnie Keshawarz (Gerard), Brian Tarantina (Nice Guy), David Fonteno (Father Kent), Chris Fischer (Uni Cop), Mira Tzur (Anna Jiminez), Peter Hermann (Grant), Megan Neuringer (Paula), Clark Jackson (Young Pastor), Kevin Isola (Technician), Brandon Gill (Student) & Jasper McGruder (Control Room Tech)

"There was something important… Oh!
I've decided on the pancakes. Blueberry."
-- Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble)

Three episodes in and Fringe's "Pilot" is beginning to look like a fluke; a great film idea condensed for TV. "The Ghost Network" is another ragged mix of fun ideas, quickly suffocated by dry performances and a drab storyline. Here, a man called Roy McComb (Zak Orth) is receiving psychic impressions "from God" of bizarre disasters (shades of Heroes' Isaac Mendez) -- including an attack on a bus where a man releases a gas that solidifies in the air, asphyxiating the passengers and trapping them aboard like insects in amber…

Like last week's accelerated birth teaser, the scene is set for a fun and bizarre investigation… but Fringe never really gets going. Olivia (Anna Torv) just isn't very interesting for a lead character and Torv herself lingers around in scenes like a sourpuss Cate Blanchett. Peter (Joshua Jackson) tries to be sarcastic and funny, but he's just the straight-man to his eccentric father, on-hand to explain dad's crazy theories to Olivia and the audience. Walter (John Noble) is still the best reason to keep watching, but even his gargling vocals and crackpot ideas are becoming repetitive and slightly predictable. A bad sign at this early stage.

Every television drama creates a basic template for itself, but this is the second story in a row where the thrust of the plot was too familiar. Walter's old experiments once again hold the key to solving the case, and Massive Dynamic were once again involved behind-the-scenes. While it was nice to see Olivia question the latter "coincidence" with Dynamic's boss Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), meaning it was at least intentional déjà vu, I'm just not very interested in this aspect of Fringe.

The vagueness over The Pattern, Massive Dynamic and creepy Nina's secret cooperation with Broyles (Lance Reddick) is more irritating than involving. I just want this show to deliver tense, exciting, astonishing, science-based mysteries. The mythology can wait, particularly if Fringe is supposed to be more accessible for casual viewers after a quick hit of "extreme X-Files".

The gas attack takes a backseat to Roy's ability to "predict" Pattern-related disasters, which turns out to be the after-effects of an experiment Walter performed on him as a medical volunteer years ago. Roy can now access a band of waves referred to as "the ghost network", giving him the ability to eavesdrop on an underground group of scientists performing illegal, dangerous and destructive experiments on the population. After a bit of experimental brain surgery from Walter, Roy is able to receive vocal chatter from the villains using his psychic link-up, and helps direct Olivia their way.

Overall, I like the speculative science this show has thrown up so far, and Noble's good fun as the resident oddball, but everything else is a bit of a chore to get through. The agent/dad/son dynamic appeared fresh and intriguing in the "Pilot", but I'm beginning to find Peter's role thankless and the absence of a trained FBI partner for Olivia leaves her vulnerable in the field.

None of the characters are that interesting either -- although Peter's run-in with a photographer who's been tailing him will hopefully develop into something good. It also didn't help that the surprises in the denouement were all damp squibs -- pointlessly hammering home the fact Broyles is in league with the (possibly villainous) Nina, and Massive Dynamic have started to extract intel from the brain of Olivia's dead lover John (Mark Valley).

Another disappointing episode, then. Fringe really needs to start fleshing-out Olivia and Peter before they become totally indolent, and keep its focus on delivering imaginative sci-fi fun. The mythology-building is all very well, but I'd prefer a half dozen episodes of strong, self-contained, well-written stories before Fringe starts trying to spread its wings. There's a sense of mythology-fatigue in television right now -- with Fringe's natural audience too busy dissecting Lost and Battlestar Galactica's subtleties. Hopefully the show will settle down and keep it simple: strong characters, exciting stories, good ideas. Just plug the X-Files gap, that's what we want.


23 September 2008
Fox, 9/8c

BREAKING BAD 1.1 - "Pilot"

Writer & Director: Vince Gilligan

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Anna Gunn (Skyler White), Betsy Brandt (Marie Schrader), Dean Norris (Hank Schrader), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), RJ Mitte (Walter White Jr.), Marius Stan (Bogdan), Linda Speciale (Sexy Neighbor), Allan Pacheco (Irving), Jason Byrd (Chemistry Student), Roberta Marquez (Chad's Girlfriend), Christopher Dempsey (E.M.T.), Carmen Serano (Carmen), Evan Bobrick (Chad), Aaron Hill (Jock), Greg Chase (Dr. Belknap), Max Arciniega (Krazy-8), Steven Michael Quezada (Gomez), Jesus Ramirez (Jock's Friend #1), Joshua S. Patton (Jock's Friend #2) & John Koyama (Emilio)

"Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass --
age what? Sixty? He's just gonna break bad?"
-- Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Former X-Files producer Vince Gilligan wrote many memorable episodes of that '90s classic -- including "Drive", guest-starring Bryan Cranston as a man driven insane by sonar waves. Cranston's had a decades-long career, but he only really became "famous" thanks to Malcolm In The Middle ('00-06), where he played childlike father Hal. Gilligan must have loved Cranston's appearance in his X-Files episode, as he chosen to give him an edgy, dramatic role as Walter White...

Walter's one of life's mild-mannered doormats; a chemistry teacher living in Albuquerque who makes ends meet as a car wash cashier. He has a beautiful, sexually-frustrated wife called Skyler (Deadwood's Anna Gunn) and a teenage son with cerebral palsy called Walter White Jr (RJ Mitte).

Having just turned 50, Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer and given 2 years to live. Suddenly inspired to make something of the time he has left, and ensure his family are financially secure after he's gone, Walter decides to keep his illness a secret and use his knowledge of chemistry to help dropout student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cook and sell methamphetamine...

Yes, the hero of the Breaking Bad is a drug dealer. But he's also a terminally ill man utilizing his only life-skill for the greater good of his family, now that his mid-life crisis has turned into a life crisis. It's a mildly controversial premise that provides plenty of mordant sparks, and can thus be found on cable channel AMC in the States. There's no way the sight of a gun-toting Bryan Cranston, stripped down to his underwear in the desert, having crashed a mobile meth lab, would make its way onto mainstream US television. It was a bit strange some of the tougher swearing and female nudity was censored, though..

The Emmy-winning Cranston is absolutely superb here. Just amazing. I've admired and enjoyed his comic performances on Malcolm In The Middle for years, but this is a delicious 180-degree turn from that show's frantic man-child character. With a brown-stain moustache, pale freckly body, schlubby posture, and introverted demeanour, Walter's a loser making the best of a bad hand.

Regularly belittled by brother-in-law Dean Norris, a macho cop who works for the DEA, and treated as a joke by his students, only his love for chemistry and family unit keep him going. But even they represent a degree of hardship: son Walter Jr's disability must have been tough going (although this episode leaves that avenue unexplored), while his sex life is non-existent.

However, when faced with certain death, there are signs Walter will become "the mouse who roared". Echoing Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down (together with aspects of Ed Norton's office drone in Fight Club), Walter makes the tough decision to "break bad" and consequently wakes up from a lifetime's slumber to get his life back on-track as it draws to a close. I particularly liked the darkly-comic moment when Skyler gives her husband a hand-job in bed, as she browses Ebay -- and how that scene juxtaposed nicely with Walter's bedroom antics in the final shot.

The supporting cast are overshadowed by Cranston, although Anna Gunn makes for an appealingly normal wife and Aaron Paul's streetwise slacker Pinkman should make for an intriguing partner-in-crime for Walter, and I'm looking forward to seeing this "odd couple" growing closer. It's also an interesting creative decision to include a character with cerebral palsy, as that lends a layer of complexity to proceedings.

Vince Gilligan deserves a huge amount of credit, of course. As writer and director, this "Pilot" was a particularly brilliant synergy of inventive, concise writing and smooth direction. There are so many wonderful ideas and sequences scattered throughout, too -- from the dizzying RV car chase opening (a textbook example of how to start a Pilot with a bang), to the poignant scene of Walter lighting matches and throwing them into his pool -- cherished chemical reactions signifying his soon-to-be-extinguished life...

Overall, Breaking Bad gets off to a blistering start: a compelling story full of incident, rounded characterizations and dark beauty. Like all great pilots, it keeps you glued 'till the end and leaves enough dangling to draw you back for more. Now that the set-up has been established, it'll be interesting to see how they keep the weekly episodes interesting. The added brilliance of Bryan Cranston (seriously, wow) will ensure your addiction.


28 September 2008
FX, 10pm

Sunday, 28 September 2008

LOST IN AUSTEN: Part 4 of 4

Writer: Guy Andrews
Director: Dan Zeff

Cast: Jemima Rooper (Amanda Price), Gemma Arterton (Elizabeth Bennet), Elliot Cowan (Mr. Darcy), Alex Kingston (Mrs. Bennet), Hugh Bonneville (Mr. Bennet), Morven Christie (Jane Bennet), Tom Riley (Wickham), Perdita Weeks (Lydia Bennet), Christina Cole (Caroline Bingley), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Guy Henry (Mr. Collins), Michelle Duncan (Charlotte Lucas) & Tom Mison (Mr. Bingley)

The final part of this surprisingly enjoyable rom-com fantasy tumbled to a decent climax, albeit one that will have the sci-fi crowd quibbling over heroine Amanda's (Jemima Rooper) existential crisis. Fact is, Lost In Austen is aimed at costume drama lovers first and foremost, so there was unfortunately no big mind-bending conclusion a la Life On Mars or Quantum Leap. Sadly, Jane Austen didn't descend from the heavens and give a baroque version of The Architect's speech from The Matrix Reloaded just before the end credits. But it did provide the usual mix of amusing dialogue, enjoyable performances and enough closure to satisfy most people...

After a not-especially-thrilling dash to Hammersmith -- to find Mr. Bingley (Tom Mison), who had eloped with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) – Amanda's lies about her hometown existence were spared exposure by Wickham (Tom Riley), who had arrived ahead to spare her blushes and help Amanda tweak her cover-story. I caught inferences that Wickham is himself an inter-dimensional traveller like Amanda, primarily because of his unwarranted kindness in keeping her secret, and also through his agreement with Amanda that a nasty cut sustained by Mr. Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) would have to be sewn closed – a medical act that sounded preposterous to the ears of Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan).

The main source of entertainment in part 4 was Amanda's unexpected arrival back in modern-day London, along with a very puzzled Mr. Darcy. Guy Andrews didn't have long, but he managed to write an effective sojourn around contemporary London for the out-of-time characters, with Mr. Darcy as the archetypal fish-out-of-water: standing bemused in London traffic, sharing a bus with "a surfeit of negroes", identifying Teletubbies and scratching a TV screen's picture. Even better was the belated return of inter-dimensional exchange student Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton), who had actually managed to fit into the 21st-century with comparative ease: she's become a nanny, learned how to use a mobile phone, discovered and bookmarked a Colin Firth fan-site on the internet, and given herself a pixie-like modern hairdo.

Sadly, a full hour of this new adventure wasn't on the cards. The episode returned to the slightly less interesting Austenland for the last 20 minutes, where Amanda finally put the "Pride & Prejudice" storyline back on track with the help of Elizabeth. Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet (Morven Christie) got their chance of happiness, thanks to Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lindsay Duncan) agreeing to annul Mr. Collins' (Guy Henry) unconsummated marriage, in return for Amanda's departure. Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston) lost her twittering obsession with finding male suitors for her daughters, finding an Amanda-like strength of her own. The great romance of Elizabeth and Darcy was more complicated to rectify – with Lizzie agreeing to try and fall in love with Darcy, as the story demands. Yet it was implied Elizabeth has outgrown this restricting Georgian lifestyle, thanks to her holiday in the more vibrant real world – likely hinting at a return trip to contemporary Hammersmith for another series.

Lost In Austen was also faced with a tricky storytelling problem in its final moments, as Amanda's attempts to get everything back on track was at odds with the audience's desire to see Amanda and Mr. Darcy become an item – however much Jane Austen would be "spinning in her grave". The final moments were vague about the success of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's pairing, ending instead on Amanda and Darcy having a full-blown kiss.

Overall, despite some creaking towards the end and the disappointing lack of a big surprise or twist (couldn't Wickham have been more openly behind it all?), Lost In Austen was generally very entertaining and richly written. The actors all did a superb job, with Rooper really growing into her role and Cowan proving to be very charismatic and watchable after a wobbly introduction. The supporting cast also left good impressions – particularly charming Bonneville, quivery Kingston, likeable Mison, poised Christie and sneering Christina Cole (sadly underused in this final part).

To summarise, Lost In Austen was a fine piece of populist drama from ITV1; probably the best light-hearted and wantonly silly entertainment Sunday nights never had. A sequel might be stretching things, but a spin-off would be very welcome. What The Dickens, anyone?


24 September 2008
ITV1, 9pm

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES 2.3 – "The Mousetrap"

Writer: John Wirth
Director: Bryan Spicer

Cast: Lena Headey (Sarah), Thomas Dekker (John), Summer Glau (Cameron), Brian Austin Green (Derek), Garret Dillahunt (Cromartie), Shirley Manson (Catherine Weaver), Leven Rambin (Riley), Richard T. Jones (Agent James Ellison), Dean Winters (Charley), Sonya Walger (Michelle), William C. Mitchell (Pastor), Lisa Canning (News Anchor) & Busy Philipps (Kacy Corbin)

I was evidently premature in thinking Charley (Dean Winters) and Michelle (Sonya Walger) had left the show last week, as "The Mousetrap" sees those peripheral characters take centre stage for one last hurrah. John Wirth's script is a different twist on the usual Chronicles stories, where regular villain Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) abandons his Terminator modus operandi of search-and-destroy in favour of an elaborate trap. The titular "mousetrap" is set when Cromartie kidnaps Michelle as the departing Dixons fill up at a remote gas station, prompting her husband Charley to ask for his ex-fiancé Sarah's (Lena Headey) help in getting his wife back...

As Sarah arrives with Derek (Brian Austin Green) to help find Michelle, who has been taken to an abandoned building in the middle of the desert and tied to a booby-trapped chair, the situation with John (Thomas Dekker) and Riley (Leven Rambin) also develops, with John now actively pursuing a normal life hanks to the influence of his new girlfriend. Terminator protector Cameron (Summer Glau) is the unwanted "babysitter" strangling his style throughout, so tension mounts as John becomes increasingly distant and ignorant of his great destiny and pushes his "sister" Cameron away.

There's also an intriguing little subplot for Agent Ellison (Richard T. Jones), whose purpose in season 2 starts to gain some direction. Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), the clandestine liquid metal Terminator with a penchant for white suits, invites Ellison to meet with her – and pricks his curiosity by mentioning her own belief in machines from the future. Catherine clearly has an important mission to perform in the past (probably something instrumental to ensure Skynet is created), and it will certainly be interesting if she makes Ellison an unwitting accomplice in humanity's downfall. Remember how Cromartie let Ellison live during the FBI massacre in season 1's finale? The federal agent's role in future-history must be crucial and beneficial to the machines.

"The Mousetrap" was a nice distraction from the typical Chronicles plot type, particularly because Cromartie showed some intelligence in how his trap for Michelle neutralized Sarah and Derek, leaving the field open for a swooping attack on John. The situation with Michelle was tense and enjoyable and delivered some uncomfortable moments for the "love triangle" of Sarah/Charley/Michelle. I'm slightly disappointed Derek still looks like a hanger-on from season 1, but hopefully his character will be given more direction in the week's to come.

As ever, Glau is great fun throughout (such a delicate, fine performance), and Dillahunt's work as the emotionless Terminator assassin is now bedding in very well. I particularly liked this episode's references to Victor Laszlo (the struggling actor Cromartie used as a flesh-template), with Laszlo now notorious as a maniac actor who slaughtered a FBI assault team before committing suicide. And the TV clips of Laszlo, dressed as a Conan The Barbarian-style character in a cheesy movie was surely a little dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger's early career.

Overall, "The Moustrap" was a diverting episode of small thrills, eventually culminating in the loss of a semi-regular character. It's not particularly essential, but it's a good example of Chronicles mixing up the kind of stories it can tell, and more vital information is delivered in the subplots regarding the overall mythology – including how to easily avoid a Terminator. Now, if only someone could go back in time to 1984 and tell Sarah Connor to just jump in a lake.


22 September 2008
Fox, 9/8c

TV Picks: 29 September - 5 October 2008

My picks of the best brand new TV offerings this week, in the UK...

MONDAY 29th
The Sarah Jane Adventures (4.35pm, BBC1) Season 2 of the popular Doctor Who spin-off series, starring Elisabeth Sladen as a former companion of The Doctor's who now investigates aliens on Earth.

TUESDAY 30th
Dawn Porter: Free Lover (10pm, Channel 4) Investigation into extreme marriages, including geishas and mail-order brides.
Coming Of Age (10.30pm, BBC3) Sitcom about sixth-form students from Abington in Oxfordshire, written by 19-year-old Tim Dawson.

WEDNESDAY 1st
Heroes (9pm, BBC2 & 10pm, BBC3) Third season of the US fantasy drama about normal people dealing with the emergence of superpowers.
Silent Witness (9pm, BBC1) Crime drama starring William Gaminara, Emilia Fox and Tom Ward.

THURSDAY 2nd
Never Mind The Buzzcocks (9pm, BBC2) Return of the pop quiz with host Simon Amstell and Phil Jupitus. Team captain Bill Bailey has left the series and will be replaced by various special guests.
Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails (9pm, BBC4) The Have I Got News For You satirist hosts this documentary, looking into 1963's Beeching Report and how it led to the closure of railway lines and stations across the UK.
Cold Case (9pm, Sky1) Season 6 of the US crime drama.
Natural Born Sellers (9pm, ITV1) Gameshow where eight salespeople compete for a cash prize.
The Graham Norton Show (10pm, BBC2) The Irish comedian returns with another run of his chat-show, opening with guests Harry Shearer and Travis.

FRIDAY 3rd
Little Britain USA (9.30pm, BBC1) A brand new series of the smash-hit sketch show, with Matt Lucas and David Walliams transplanting their comedy characters to America, and creating many more.

SATURDAY 4th
Dancing With The Stars (9pm, Watch) US version of Strictly Come Dancing.

SUNDAY 5th
Bear Grylls: Born Survivor (5.45pm, Channel 4) The British survivalist continues to venture into hostile environments around the world, starting this seven-part series with trips to Nambia, Zambia, Mexico and the Andean Steppes.
Fringe (9pm, Sky1) US sci-fi drama series from the co-creator of Lost, about a mad scientist, his academic son and a female FBI agent and their investigation of "fringe science".
Burn Notice (9pm, FX) US drama about a former spy who is forcibly retired but uses his skills to help the citizens of Miami.
The Secret Policeman's Ball 2008 (9pm, Channel 4) Comedy stage show from London's Albert Hall in aid of Amnesty International, featuring Al Murray, Chevy Chase, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, Andrew Maxwell, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Stevenson, Jimmy Fallon, Natalie Imbruglia, Jon Culshaw, Omid Djalili, Richard E. Grant, Ronnie Ancona, Sarah Silverman and many more.

PRISON BREAK 4.5 – "Safe And Sound"

Writer: Seth Hoffman
Director: Karen Gaviola

Cast: Wentworth Miller (Michael Scofield), Jodi Lyn O'Keefe (Gretchen), Amaury Nolasco (Sucre), William Fichtner (Mahone), Sarah Wayne Callies (Sara), Dominic Purcell (Lincoln), Wade Williams (Brad), Michael Rapaport (Don Self), Robert Knepper (T-Bag), Leon Russom (Pad Man) & Cress Williams (Wyatt)

If you're still watching Prison Break, you've clearly chosen to accept season 4's radical revamp, and this fifth episode rewards you with quite a confident outing. "Safe And Sound" once again revolves around the search for a Scylla data-card; this one locked inside a safe owned by a high-ranking federal agent. Fundamentally, it's another mini-mission for Michael (Wentworth Miller), Linc (Dominic Purcell), Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) and Bellick (Wade Williams) to pull off, but all of those actors are at their best embroiled in tense, covert situations... so that's fine with me.

The only interesting piece of storytelling is still coming courtesy of twitchy Mahone (William Fichtner), with the writers clearly aware Fichtner's the only actor capable of bringing a wide range of emotions to bare. Here, Mahone meets up with his wife Pam (Callie Thorne), who for the purposes of the storyline doesn't blame her husband for the fact their son was murdered by a hitman after Mahone. We'll just have to accept the Mahones have a marriage strong enough to overcome this tragedy, okay.

Still, his son's death has given Mahone the perfect chance to ditch Prison Break's Scylla-obsessed story and venture off into his own, more entertaining, subplot – using his skills as a manhunter to track down and hopefully kill his boy's murderer, Wyatt (Cress Williams). It's a simple story of paternal revenge, but it works well because Mahone's the only character acting on pure emotions.

Everyone else is only bothering to takedown The Company because their hand is being forced by their own government. And it's difficult to actually care about The Company and their baffling machinations, which lost all sense after season 1's presidential scandal. I'm just not eager to see them punished, because you can't hate a generic evil corporation with much passion -- and Prison Break's few human-face villains are either long dead (Agent Kellerman, Mr. Kim), underwritten (Leon Russom's suddenly-ubiquitous Pad Man), too new to have a history (Wyatt), or have become anti-heroes you love-to-hate (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, whose sneering villain puts her own escape bid into action here.)

The typical Prison Break episode seems to involve a harebrained scheme (here, the team drill into a safe to retrieve a Scylla card, covered by the noise of Bellick and Sucre shampooing a carpet), a torture of some description (Gretchen is left to retch over a bucket of human waste), together with a few small surprises and twists of expectation (Robert Knepper's T-Bag gets some unexpected help from the sexy GATE secretary, who realizes he's not really super salesman Cole Pfeiffer and forces him to buy her silence.)

Still, Prison Break has been a series that just gets by on an established template for years now; even its surprises carry a strange predictability about them when they strike. So far, season 4 isn't really inspiring stuff, but I have a grudging admiration that it's still on-air. As always, a fair bit happens, but most of it won't have a lasting impact, and will probably be ignored if it jeopardises the smooth-running of the storyline 5 episodes from now. It's still very easy to get caught up in the second-to-second drama of episodes like "Safe And Sound", while finding minor excitement and amusement along the way, but Prison Break's tricks are now blunted with age and the mechanics of everything is quite predictable.

Overall, Fichtner vs. Wyatt is the one subplot I'm genuinely engaged with, and T-Bag's story is developing quite well at GATE through pure mysteriousness. Everything else is a low hum of engaging action beats, peppered with silly moments. It's difficult to really care about anything very much though -- as the show historically doesn't reward viewer loyalty, it just hopes its die-hard audience will be entertained for 43-minutes, won't ask too many questions, and won't kick up a stink when the plot goes off-the-rails to be clumsily fixed at a later date. Mind you, now Michael knows Pad Man is The Company's boss, his ominous nosebleeds seems to have their origins in a teenage illness, and Gretchen is about to make her comeback, so there's still enough to keep long-time fans on the fish-hook...


23 September 2008
Sky1, 9pm

Friday, 26 September 2008

Box Office Charts: w/e 26 September 2008

This week's box office charts, from both sides of the pond, together with the latest cinema releases in the UK:

US TOP 10

(-) 1. Lakeview Terrace $15m
(1) 2. Burn After Reading $11m
(-) 3. My Best Friend's Girl $8.27m
(-) 4. Igor $7.8m
(3) 5. Righteous Kill $7.42m
(2) 6. The Family That Preys $7.27m
(4) 7. The Women $5.42m
(-) 8. Ghost Town $5.01m
(7) 9. The Dark Knight $2.92m [review]
(6) 10. The House Bunny $2.66m

UK TOP 10

(-) 1. Tropic Thunder £2.4m
(2) 2. Mamma Mia! £708k
(4) 3. The Women £605k
(1) 4. Pineapple Express £547k
(5) 5. The Duchess £518k
(8) 6. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas £451k
(3) 7. RocknRolla £439k
(7) 8. Disaster Movie £371k
(6) 9. Step Brothers £311k
(9) 10. The Strangers £216k

UK RELEASES THIS WEEK

"Death Race"

Action. In the near-future, convicts are allowed to participate in a dangerous car race to obtain their freedom.
Director: Paul W.S Anderson Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson & Natalie Martinez
US Box Office: $35 million
Tomatometer: 43% (Rotten; based on 127 reviews) "Mindless, violent, and lightning-paced, Death Race is little more than an empty action romp."

"Redbelt"

Drama. A martial arts intructor gets a job in the film industry.
Director: David Mamet Starring: Max Martini, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alice Braga & Jose Pablo Cantillo
US Box Office: $2.3 million
Tomatometer: 70% (Fresh; based on 127 reviews) "Mamet's mixed marital arts morality play weaves between action and intellect but doesn't always hit its target."

"Righteous Kill"

Crime drama. Two veteran detectives work together to find a connection between a murder and a closed case they solved together years ago.
Director: John Avnet Starring: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, 50 Cent, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg & Brian Dennehy
US Box Office: $30 million
Tomatometer: 23% (Rotten; based on 115 reviews) "Al Pacino and Robert De Niro do their best to elevate this dowdy genre exercise, but even these two greats can't resuscitate the film's hackneyed script."

"Swing Vote"

Comedy. An ordinary guy is courted by the two presidential candidates after his sole vote becomes the deciding factor in who becomes the President of the USA.
Director: Joshua Michael Stern Starring: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper & Nathan Lane
US Box Office: $16 million
Tomatometer: 38% (Rotten; based on 128 reviews) "Despite Kevin Costner providing his most charismatic performance in years, Swing Vote fails to find the right mix of political satire and heartfelt drama."

"Taken"

Action drama. A former spy reles on his old sklls to save the life of his estranged daughter, who has been forced into the slave trade.
Director: Pierre Morel Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Xander Berkeley, Holly Valance & Jon Gries
Tomatometer: 52% (Fresh; based on 25 reviews)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Break time!

Yes, just as the new TV season starts to hit its stride, I'm afraid it's time for me to go on holiday! DMD will be back to normal service by next Monday (29 Sep), and obviously it will take me awhile to get up-to-date with all the TV shows I will miss this week. So expect a few "double-bill" reviews next week. As usual, there could be a few minor updates 'till then, so please keep checking back.

TRUE BLOOD 1.3 – "Mine"

Writer: Alan Ball
Director: John Dahl

Cast: Stephen Moyer (Bill), Anna Paquin (Sookie), Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette), Rutina Wesley (Tara), Sam Trammell (Sam), Ryan Kwanten (Jason), Lois Smith (Adele "Gran" Stackhouse), Lynn Collins (Dawn Green), Andrew Rothenberg (Malcolm), Aunjanue Ellis (Diane) & Graham Shiels (Liam)

HBO have shown surprising faith in Alan Ball's vampire drama, after the second episode gained a record increase of viewers from the "Pilot". Funnily enough, the same thing happened with Fringe's second episode, indicating that the majority of both series' target audience had downloaded those premieres online and didn't bother tuning in. Maybe this should become a model – with networks releasing their pilots online, free of charge, and then gauging how popular each one is before commissioning a run?

Anyway, back to True Blood – where once again a tense cliffhanger is brushed under the carpet in a faintly humorous way, within seconds. "Mine" is a more involving episode than last week's exposition-heavy affair, as the supporting cast actually get some interesting things to do – as the emphasis on Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill (Stephen Moyer) is softened. A problem for all fantasy-themed TV shows is keeping the "normal" characters interesting (something Heroes typically has problems with), so it's nice to see True Blood take a decent stab at it...

Here, Tara (Rutina Wesley) and Sam (Sam Trammell) grow close during a heart-to-heart one night, that results in the sex-starved friends becoming fuck-buddies to take the edge off their horniness. Meanwhile, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) agrees to give Jason (Ryan Kwanten) a vial of vampire blood (colloquially known as "V") to increase his sex-drive, after he admits to having trouble performing in bed with girlfriend Dawn (Lynn Collins). But such generosity comes at a price...

The episode also fleshes out the vampire subculture some more, as Sookie meets some of Bill's "friends" – a small nest of vampires that include Liam (Graham Shiels); the bald, tattooed bloodsucker from murdered Maudette's sex-tape. Liam would appear to be the prime suspect in her murder, but surely his guilty is just too obvious. Writer Alan Ball actually has some fun with audience expectations a little later, by making it clear the mysterious dog often spotted watching Sookie (and protecting a blonde girl in a painting at Merlotte's bar) must be barman Sam – who Tara even catches barking and growling in his sleep. But then, quite amusingly, Sam is seen petting the same dog in the very next scene. There must be some connection between them, though. Is Sam able to inhabit the dog's body in his dreams, perhaps? Or is that too much of a stretch?

I was also glad to see the ambiguity over Bill return, particularly in the early scenes where Bill came across as rather sinister while in the company of his peers. I think we can assume Bill's intentions are good and he doesn't mean Sookie any actual harm, but clearly there are factions of the vampire subculture that won't drink the synthetic plasma "TruBlood" and still want to hunt and kill humans – whereas Bill prefers to live alone and approximate a normal, human life. I was also worried the show might be keeping things too simple by having Sookie and Bill declare their interest in each other so soon, but here Sookie is having second thoughts about getting close to Bill – as she realizes his lifestyle and acquaintances are so alien and rather scary.

My theory about Sookie being adopted also hit shaky ground, as her gran (Lois Smith) had a wonderfully-written scene with her granddaughter, where she told a story of Sookie's dead grandfather and his own ability to hear other people's thoughts – a gift he used to talk his brother out of committing suicide. It was a great scene, perfectly exemplifying Alan Ball's gift with dialogue and black humour. But it also means Sookie's mind-reading has a genetic lineage in her family, so ruined my fledgling theory. Damn.

The performances seemed more nuanced this week, particularly from Rutina Wesley – who got the chance to develop chatterbox Tara some more when we glimpsed some of her home life, with her alcoholic mother. Paquin is still totally charming and likeable as Sookie, while Moyer's role so far is just to act enigmatic and brooding as Bill – which he admittedly does very well. I like the conviction and energy Ryan Kwanten puts into his performance of Jason, although his character isn't much beyond the randiest person on TV with various reasons to hate and distrust vampirism. I hope he shows some other facets of his personality soon. And can't we follow a police officer character, to understand how Maudette's murder case is progressing?

Overall, this was a the best-paced episode yet and it was nice to see the supporting characters given some better material. The mystery isn't exactly deepening as such, but you get the impression than Alan Ball knows what he's doing and is laying out his pieces, ready to really starting playing. Psychologically, it's great to know True Blood will reach its twelfth episode without being axed and is likely to run for another dozen instalments in 2009. Too often with US drama you're unable to settle into the story, because it's always in the back of your mind that the network will yank it off-air. So kudos to HBO for getting behind True Blood; a series that didn't have the greatest of starts, but is now exhibiting a lot of quality and adult quirk.


21 September 2008
HBO, 9pm

Monday, 22 September 2008

TV Week 19: Merlin, Hole In The Wall & No Heroics

Newslite.tv have my nineteenth TV Week column online now, with itty-bitty reviews of BBC1's big Saturday night drama "Merlin", Dale Winton's bonkers gameshow "Hole In The Wall" and ITV2's superhero comedy "No Heroics". Check. It. Out.

Oh, and leave a comment -- because comments are like blogging currency.

TV Picks: 22-28 September 2008

My personal pick of the best new television shows hitting British telly's this week...

MONDAY 22nd
The Paul O'Grady Show (5pm, Channel 4) Return of the teatime chat show, with celebrity guests, kids, dogs and games.
Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two (6.30pm, BBC2) Return of Strictly Come Dancing's daily companion series, hosted by Claudia Winkleman, with news and behind-the-scenes gossip.
Lipstick Jungle (10pm, LivingTV) US drama from Sex & The City author Candace Bushnell about three New York businesswomen. Stars Brooke Shields, Kim Raver (24) & Lindsay Price.

TUESDAY 23rd
The Secret Millionaires Changed My Life (10pm, Channel 4) Follow-up report on the popular series, where millionaires secretly spent time with disadvanted communities and awarded them life-saving sums of money.

WEDNESDAY 24th
Keith Lemon's Celebrity Juice (10pm, ITV2) Comedy gameshow presented by comedian Leigh Francis (in the guise of Keith Lemon) with team captains Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby.
Lost In Austen... Behind The Scenes (10pm, ITV3) A look into the making of ITV1's fantasy-drama, where a modern woman was thrown into the world of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice".

THURSDAY 25th
Bones (9pm, Sky1) Return of the US crime drama with Emily Deschanel & David Boreanaz.

FRIDAY 26th
Heroes Countdown (9pm, BBC3) Preview of season 3, that starts next week.
Russell Brand: Live (10pm, Channel 4) Stand-up comedy from the wild-haired comedian.

SATURDAY 27th
John Adams (5.40pm, More4) US period drama about America's first vice president and second president. Stars Paul Giamatti & Laura Linnet.

SUNDAY 28th
Breaking Bad (10pm, FX) UK premiere of the US drama about a high school teacher (Bryan Cranston) who discovers he's terminally ill, so decides to become a crystal meth dealer to ensure his family are taken care of after his death.