Utopia: Conspiracy thriller packs a punch

utopiaAs I’d heard good things about Channel 4’s new mini-series, I settled down to watch with trepidation and was rather impressed. The plot focuses around an online forum group for fans of a cult graphic novel The Utopia Experiments: a novel that allegedly predicts future events.

They are brought together after one of them discovers a sequel to the novel. Something thought to not exist. Unfortunately this brings them to the attention of two evil chaps hell-bent on retrieving the sequel’s manuscript and killing the group and anyone associated with it, often in a chilling fashion.

utopia2Where is Jessica Hyde?

This mini-series is pitched as a slow-burn thriller and I’d say that’s an apt description. It gradually weaves various story strands together and we get introduced to characters slowly and confidently, learning a little about them in each scene.

As well as the forum group, there’s also a sub-plot involving a government health minister, which looks likely to connect with the main story further down the line and has intrigue written all over it.

Why a spoon? Because it’s dull, it’ll hurt more

In terms of critical reception, much will be made of the violence. Considering this is TV, it’s incredibly well-shot and cinematic, with a compelling cast including Kill List alumni Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley. If you’ve seen that film you’ll have an idea of the tone.

Without giving too much away I’ll just say there’s a few stand-out, Tarantino-esque scenes that really do pack a punch. That said, it’s not violence all the way – indeed, the characters are built up well and the plot is intriguing and compelling.

wilson wilsonMaster of suspense

One of the things the show does well is not reveal its hand too quickly. Vitally important – for something pitching itself as a slow-burn thriller – to keep in mind. Obvious you may say, but it’s been ignored before.

As an audience, we like to be kept guessing. Not too much, but enough to keep us hooked. Based on the first episode I think they’ve got the balance right. Let’s hope, if it’s maintained for the duration, the results could be something quite special.

[Interesting links]
Guardian blog: Utopia review | How long before they find you? The Utopia Inquiry

Secret State – proper thriller or nothing new?

Talk about a mixed reaction to the first episode of Channel 4’s four-part political conspiracy thriller Secret State. Some critics think it’s pretty good, others have torn it apart.

Me? I sit somewhere in the middle, probably more on the positive side. Despite the plot being a little predictable at times, it’s well shot and Gabriel Byrne (Deputy Prime Minister) is a compelling lead, with a solid supporting cast including: Charles Dance (Chief Whip with dark motives?), Gina McKee (suspiciously well informed reporter), Douglas Hodge (alcoholic ex-MI5 chief turned private investigator).

Setting the scene
Based on the book A Very British Coup, the story begins in the aftermath of an explosion at a US petrochemical site in Teeside, which results in the death of 19 people. After securing compensation for the families whose loved ones died in the explosion, the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes on a flight back from the US and he dies.

Dawkins (Byrne) reluctantly assumes leadership and promises justice for the victims’ families. As he pressures the petrochemical company to make good on their compensation promise, he begins to make discoveries of a conspiratorial nature that lie at the heart of Government.

channel 4 thrillerSuspicion abound!
Within the first 20 minutes or so, it becomes abundantly clear that nearly every major character has hidden/murky motives. We’d expect nothing less from a conspiracy thriller right?

It does feel that plot points are contrived at times. Characters like McKee’s reporter pop up at key moments with teasing information to divulge.

Everyone appears to be watching everyone – GCHQ are listening intently to the PM, the order coming from someone ‘very senior’. My money is on Chief Whip (Dance) who’s clearly up to something – he always is. His gravestone should read, ‘Born to scheme’. Ahem, let’s move on.

I understand why people expect thrillers to deliver on every level these days, they’re up against wise, old dogs – State of Play, Edge of Darkness – and keen, new youngsters – Homeland.

A proper PM
Ladies love a bit of Byrne right? He’s great casting. Calm, decisive, authoritative, charismatic, knowledgeable – everything you’d expect from a leader. You get the sense he’s on the back-foot initially, but his Irish fire will kick in and he’ll tear into those that oppose him. At least, that’s my hope.

Numerous references get made to his military background. It would be great to see him bring righteousness to the political arena. A biblical PM, delivering great vengeance and furious anger against his conspirators, Pulp Fiction style. Too much?

The long game
In terms of the London setting and production values, it’s visually impressive. Great shots of Whitehall and the corridors of power. The score is suitably tense, although perhaps stolen from the Bourne films?

I imagine many characters will reveal their true motives as things progress. Despite some shortfalls in terms of giving the audience too many ‘standard conspiracy’ elements, it’s worth sticking with this show. It’s only a four-parter, so probably best judging at the end.

I’ve seen two episodes and it’s shaping up well. Not an instant classic, but worth your time. If nothing else than to imagine what it’d be like if Byrne was PM. Now that would be thrilling.

The Hour series 2: First episode review

I assume, if you’re reading this, you were a fan of the original series. If not, allow me to bring you up to speed. Released in 2011 The Hour was a drama miniseries set in a BBC newsroom studios in the 1950s, starring Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai.

The premise began with ambitious, young producer Bel (Garai) being tasked by her boss to helm a new, cutting-edge news show. Her reporter and friend, Freddie (Whishaw), was brought on board to run the domestic news side of the show, with charismatic Hector (West) as anchor in front of camera. Series one took place against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, with a murder mystery/spy story that built throughout to a tense, dramatic conclusion.

west garai whishawCanny casting
In terms of the three leads, Whishaw is going from strength to strength, currently seen as Q in the new Bond, Skyfall. He also has a significant role in the highly anticipated epic film, Cloud Atlas. Garai is a young, talented, up-and-coming actress, prolific on both stage and screen.

Notably she’s starred in TV miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White with Chris O’Dowd – and been in films Atonement and One Day. West is best known as McNulty from critically acclaimed TV show The Wire and film 300.

Superlative scripting
I must admit, I’d completely forgotten about series two until I spotted an advert the day before it started. Lucky for me, because I thoroughly enjoyed the first series. The three leads had some great lines, courtesy of a strong script by Abi Morgan – who also wrote the screenplay for films Shame and The Iron Lady. Indeed, this show was nominated for Best Miniseries – as well as two other awards – at the Golden Globes.

It’s also worth noting that it’s incorrectly been described – mostly by the press – as the British Mad Men. Other than the period setting, that’s it in terms of similarities. It’s a completely different beast. Just so you know what you’re getting into.

peter capaldiSeries two: Episode one – the plot
So it was with excitement that I settled down to watch the new series. It takes place a year after events at the end of series one, with Bel struggling to keep the show running. The episode starts with new Head of News, Randall Brown (the brilliant Peter Capaldi), and takes place in a Britain consumed by fear of nuclear attack by Soviet Russia. In order to compete with a rival show Randall brings Freddie back, which unsettles Bel. At the same time Hector receives a tip-off for a story that could outdo their rivals.

Didn’t they do well?
Sorry for going all Brucie bonus on you there, but it was a good first episode, hitting the beats in terms of bringing us up-to-date on the newsroom and various staff changes. This included introduction of Capaldi, who slipped effortlessly into the show, stealing most scenes with fantastically delivered lines. As an actor he seems to personify authority and quiet, bottled rage, kept at bay with a calm, almost Zen exterior. That’s probably why he was so good in political satire TV show The Thick of It, although he’s understandably more restrained here.

His character also hints at an ulterior motive for joining the newsroom, something brought up by reporter Lix Storm. So I imagine there’s a lot more to see from the mysterious Randall.

Whishaw’s character, Freddie, gets a brilliantly scripted introduction. As an audience anticipating his entrance, we’re kept waiting for half the episode. He then returns to the studio, sauntering into a news briefing like he’d never left,  sporting a bohemian beard and a sharp, new suit. This has significant impact on Bel; the range of emotions that flit across Garai’s face in this scene are worth watching. I’ve been a massive fan of hers since The Crimson Petal and the White. Her chemistry with Freddie picks up pretty quickly until near the end of the episode, when she makes a discovery.

Meanwhile West’s character, Hector, has let the success go to his head and is on fine, smug form: drinking, late for work, flirting and bedding glamorous women. This sows the seeds (no pun intended) for a story strand involving a mystery woman (played by Hannah Tointon), series 2 domonic westwho will most likely need the help of the intrepid news team. This plot feels a little similar to the start of the first series, a mystery woman in danger. I’m sure it will take on a life of its own quickly enough.

A final point, the tone of the show – including some great use of music during scenes – has continued much where it left off from the first series. This is important. Whilst it’s great to evolve and develop characters, it’s important not to lose sight of the appeal of the original. Factors that made it so compelling first time round I’ve covered: great cast, strong script and characters, suspense, intrigue, great period detail, sublime soundtrack.

Let’s raise an Old Fashioned to – what I predict will be – an intriguing series!

Misfits series 4: First episode review

I got introduced to Misfits a few months ago, loved it and blasted my way through the first two series. For those not in the know, it’s a science fiction comedy drama about a group of young offenders sentenced to community service. On their first day of work they get hit by lightning from a strange storm which gifts them supernatural powers.

A huge appeal of the show on release was how well written the main characters were and the overall tone. Dialogue was realistic, gritty, funny and very sharp. The plot was often very dark, balancing some great dramatic scenes with almost comedy horror at times.

In the first two series it achieved a perfect combination of a brilliant script and story arc, coupled with great chemistry between the actors playing the main characters. Indeed, the first series won a BAFTA for Best Drama in 2010. If you’ve missed it thus far, I urge you to go out and get the box-set to catch up. If you’d like a quick overview of the plot for each series to date, check that out here.

Back to basics…
I have a confession to make, I’ve yet to see series three. I loved the first two but have yet to see the third. With this kind of show I don’t think that’s a problem. Whilst some characters have continued from the third series, enough has changed for the fourth to be seen as a fresh start.

New characters Jess and Finn have been introduced and three characters (Alicia, Simon and Kelly) have left. The new group have another new probation worker (the life span of probation workers in this show is somewhat limited).

Key to the appeal of the show was the balance of the darker, horrific story elements with sharp comedy. In the original series actor Robert Sheehan – who played Nathan – was truly exceptional at getting this right. An incredibly talented actor. Check out some of his best bits here. A major spoiler if you’ve not seen the show, be warned!

New faces
Stepping into his shoes as the comic relief in the third series was actor Joseph Gilgun (who plays Rudy). Some of you will know him as Woody in This is England. Gilgun was well cast, but he was always going to struggle taking over from Sheehan, an actor who really made the comic relief aspect of the show his own and defined the first two series.

Gilgun’s character remains in this fourth series and seems to be taking a more central role as leader of the group. From what I gather he was perhaps not as dominant in series three, but will grow in influence in the current series. I’ve always been a fan and think casting him helped refresh and progress the show from the shadow of Sheehan, who arguably dominated the first two series at the expense of other characters.

For this new series I liked the introduction of Jess (played by excellently named actress Karla Crome) – she reminded me a little of a blend between characters Alicia and Kelly – smart, sassy and intelligent. Although we’ll have to see how she develops as the episodes progress.

Finn (actor Nathan Mcmullen) was a bit of a mystery to me. Not instantly engaging as a character. He sort of sat between being dark and comic, like a diet coke version of Rudy. That said, there was a small scene near the end of the episode that suggests his character may have a darker side and the possibility of an interesting back-story developing.

For me, it’s nice to have this show back. I’d forgotten how much I liked the concept, the tone and the sharp dialogue. I look forward to this current series. If you haven’t seen the first episode of this new series you can watch it here. Or get a taster with the episode trailer below.

Walking Dead season 3: First episode review

I’ve been a fan of The Walking Dead since the start. It’s Andrew Lincoln’s best work to date – although I’ve always liked his portrayal of characters, particularly Egg in This Life, a great 90s drama about a group of law graduates.

However this show is not just about Sheriff Rick Grimes, like most fans I’ve come to care about many of the characters and the dynamic between the group. Also, the writing is first rate – the way scenes are constructed, the dramatic situations that build throughout an episode and each season as a whole. At no point do you feel the writers are being lazy or formulaic. It’s truly a brilliant show.

Anyway, on to the first episode…
I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the first two seasons and the main characters. To recap, at the end of season 2 Rick and his band of survivors had to flee Hershel’s farm, which had become overrun with our favourite shambling friends.

hershelThe story picks up a few months later when the group – having survived the winter – are moving around the local area, searching for food and looking for a base to replace their lost farm.

Immediately from the first few minutes of the episode you sense a shift in tone – the main characters are dirtier, leaner, more ruthless, and much more adept at dispatching the dead. They move like a well drilled SWOT team – even young Carl Grimes (Rick’s son), who’s grown up and become hardened to the gang’s way of surviving.

There’s a fantastic opening sequence where they all move silently through an abandoned house, efficiently killing zombies and clearing rooms. No dialogue is exchanged throughout the whole scene and it’s superbly tense and dramatic – vintage Walking Dead you might say. It’s why this show amassed such a loyal following in just two seasons.

In terms of plot I’m not going to say too much about the first episode, other than that the group – on their trails – discover a prison, which they duly move into in search of safe haven.

Suffice to say that – even in the small amount of time we see them in the prison – their chosen location turns out to be less than safe. The episode ends on a brilliant cliffhanger, with Rick demonstrating quick thinking in an impossible situation – but then we’ve come to expect nothing less from this show. Roll on the rest of the season!

Homeland season 2: First episode review

carrie mathison

nazirWith anticipation I settled down the other night to watch the first episode of season 2 of Homeland. From the first episode of its original season I was an instant fan.

To be honest I was sold on the concept before I even saw the show. It’s clear why, in today’s cut-throat world of US TV where shows get axed before they’ve even had a chance to get going, Homeland got the nod for a second outing, due to its intelligent plot, great cast, strong script, and the fantastic reception it received.

In fact, to go off subject for a second…
The amount of shows in recent times that seem to get built up immensely with a vast marketing campaign – so I subsequently watch and become invested in them – then get canned after one or two seasons is really beginning to annoy me. Some recent examples below:

  • Terra Nova – massive hype around this and it gets cancelled after one series. Poor ratings and expensive production to blame. A shame, as there were some interesting characters developing. Maybe we’ve just seen it all before with Jurassic Park, Avatar etc. I did like one of the lead actors though, Jason O’Mara – reminded me of a young Mel Gibson.
  • The Event – another show that didn’t last long, despite the hype. Perhaps it trod too closely to 24. Or with the constant jumps back and forth in time, it was trying to be Lost. Screenrant summed up its flaws well.
  • Falling Skies – initially I’d heard a rumour it had been axed, but a third series has been confirmed. I’m pleased. It’s got some good characters and the story moves along at a decent rate to keep you engaged. Plus it’s got Moon Bloodgood – an actress who, if you took away the consonants, her name would be ‘oooooo’. Sorry!

I think shows like Lost changed the scope for what could be accomplished on TV. It raised the stakes and delivered a level of complexity that was perhaps new to audiences. That said, I think it’s also responsible for a lot of shows not getting a chance to play out. Like many others, I enjoyed the first two or three seasons. It then started to get weird, confusing and infuriating, with story strands, characters and teasing suggestions that were never followed up. I stuck with it to the bitter end, only to be greatly disappointed and relatively underwhelmed. I think, as a result, audiences don’t have the patience now. Or maybe they just demand more from their TV shows post-Lost. At least I do!

Anyway, mini rant over. Back to Homeland.
A large part of the success of this show is because it doesn’t pull any punches, it’s gritty and uncompromising – the back story told in flashbacks that fleshes out Brody’s character (the excellent Damien Lewis) is well told, suspenseful, and intriguing.

brodyTV has moved on from 24 and Jack Bauer beating up anyone and everyone in sight. In much the same way that Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond moved on from slick, glossy CGI explosions to give us the raw, visceral and conflicted Daniel Craig.

Homeland shares more with shows like The Wire. Intelligent, complex yet not convoluted, but – most importantly – doesn’t paint a gung-ho, kick-ass picture of America, its politics and foreign policy.

In terms of casting, I was impressed. I’ve been a fan of Damien Lewis since Band of Brothers, which I could endlessly re-watch. For me, Claire Danes (as character Carrie Mathison) was the biggest surprise. I had this memory of her as a relatively unmemorable actress – at least in Romeo & Juliet and Terminator 3 – and she was a revelation, becoming progressively more unhinged as the story revealed itself. Damien Lewis played Brody perfectly. The slightest twitch of his eyes or change in mannerisms kept you constantly second-guessing his intentions.

So, finally, on to season 2, episode 1!
In terms of plot, Carrie, out of hospital having had treatment for bipolar disorder, is tentatively trying to rebuild her life. Brody is moving up the political ladder, from Congressman to possible Vice President. Brody then gets pulled back into Nazir’s world to once again do his bidding. Similarly, Carrie gets pulled back in by the CIA to make contact with one of her old sources that has information on an attack on America.

Brody’s life remains complex. His wife discovers – through their daughter – that Brody is a Muslim and reacts, shall we say, in an unsympathetic way. There is also an interesting relationship that’s begun to develop between Brody and his daughter (Dana) in the latter half of the first season, which has continued. Dana arguably talked him down from blowing himself up at the end of the first season and could be influential in his future decision making, particularly in terms of how Nazir sways him. We’ll have to wait and see.

carrie mathisonCarrie continued where she left off in the first season, unhinged, erratic, but still driven by her job. There is a scene near the end of the first episode of this new season, where she is being chased by an armed man, disarms him and makes her escape, with a wild, manic glint in her eye. She remains an incredibly interesting character – and the one most able to foil any terrorist plot, despite her mental state.

So, there are many reasons to be upbeat about this new season. It hasn’t toned down – or more worryingly overdone anything. Many shows feel the need to make everything bigger and better the next time around. More of the same is in order, as there’s still lots of story to tell. It’s a refreshing show to watch and follow, I’m excited. If you haven’t got involved, get season 1 on DVD, catch up then join us all on season 2. If Homeland is good enough for Barack Obama, then it’s good enough for the rest of us!

Red Dwarf X review: class of 2012, top marks!

crew of 2012 red dwarf

crew of 2012 red dwarfNow I’m not sure how broad the appeal of Red Dwarf was outside the UK during its original run, but comedy is comedy right? Actually, probably not. Some things don’t translate well overseas. That said, I’ve always been pretty proud of British humour. Whether it’s a sit-com, stand-up, sketch show or something else, I’ve felt we’ve always held our own – sometimes even led the way – on the world stage when it comes to making people laugh.

If you want a crash course in British comedy there’s the Carry On films, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Red Dwarf obviously and loads more. In modern times I’ve found Gavin & Stacey and the Inbetweeners total classics – and Misfits was very good too. Anyway, I’m going off the point. Back to the boys from the Dwarf!

From a quick browse of Wikipedia I couldn’t believe the first two series originally aired in 1988. That aside, like many fans I imagine, I feel the programme didn’t get going until series III in 1989, running through to series VI in 1993. For me, series VII and VIII felt forced, like the magic had been lost. There was a special mini-series (IX) in 2009 that felt as if the chemistry we all used to know and love had begun to come back. I assume that’s why a tenth was green-lit.

In all honesty this new series crept up on me. I’d heard a rumour a while back but completely forgotten about it until I saw an ad on the tube a few days ago. I’m glad I caught this first episode. I genuinely think they did a really good job. Check out the official trailer.

It’s noticeable that the actors have aged considerably (no offence guys!) from how we remember them. That said, I really think they still click. It’s often really hard to try and recapture the magic of something. Especially a science-fiction sit-com that can seem dated. Let’s face it though, part of the charm of Red Dwarf were the shoddy sets, dodgy special effects and low budget. It had a rough and ready quality. You felt at home with these characters.

The danger, of which I’m sure the cast and crew were aware, was trying to resist some sort of HD, Blu-ray style upgrade. Think Jar Jar Binks, that’s what we wanted to avoid. I think this was achieved incredibly well. Aside from a few little modern touches, the sets looked just like I remember them. The effects pleasingly awful (the resentment drain eyes!) – remember, it’s part of the charm.

In terms of performance from the main characters. Again, I think they pretty much picked up from their best work in the early 1990s. Craig Charles (Lister), who has probably been the most consistently working actor in that time, seemed to slip effortlessly back into his role. So too, did Cat (Danny John Jules) – he still had the moves and brilliant mannerisms. I think Chris Barrie (Rimmer) and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) were almost there, but just a little offbeat. It might take them an episode or two to find their feet. These are minor points though.

It probably helped no end that the script was strong. The jokes and storyline were the right tone: the phone order hotline, psychopathic simulant, and the moose examination question – vintage Red Dwarf.

Following this episode I have to say I’m pretty excited now about the new series. It’s like an unexpected present. It’s not your birthday or a special occasion, but someone rocks up and gives you a present anyway. Lovely.

Let’s finish with the moose joke I mentioned earlier. To set the scene, Lister, Cat and Kryten are reading a handbook about Sweden and moose safety. Rimmer is not in the room. Later in the episode Rimmer is studying for an exam and having a tough time with the questions. Now watch this scene, great stuff.