Informer!

She flips when she hears your secrets.
Demoted to the FBI, you now spend your day peddling lies.
Calculating, she looks at you as she plots your demise.
Sizing you up for termination.
She’s wise to your cries for special consideration.

But it didn’t start here.
This is the end of the tale.
It began with a trap so allow me to regale.
Looking back, the mission started on a park bench.
Most begin this way, it wasn’t that far-fetched.
At the time you were CIA.
Rival spies often clocked you a mile away.
Let’s just say… subtlety was not your specialty.
So you decided to up your game.
One last mission to show your superiors what they’d been missing.
Cos you had big plans and wanted to show them your vision.
But let’s face it, you weren’t spy material.
Rivals had you for breakfast. Espionage cereal.
So you cooked up a coup, all whispy and ethereal.
Least that’s what you thought, ’til it became hyper-real.

Escalating to the point of civil war.
And to top it off, fucking up wasn’t even a chore.
There you were, flouting international law like a zen master.
A God among men, yet a total chancer.
A show pony, a reindeer, Prancer and Dancer.
And then it came crashing down.
You missed your ultimate goal.
Ending up most wanted of Interpol.
So you turned double agent and became a mole.
A snitch, a grass, call it what you will.
You folded on friends and colleagues alike, it took real skill.

Frantic, you made deals left and right to save your hide.
Your antics? A classic panic to avoid doing time inside.
Then in she walked, right into your life.
A femme fatale that had your senses screaming.
Your defences down, what could she be scheming?
In an instant, you fell in love.
Betraying your country you were hand in glove.
With her by your side you were a man that was tough.
Somehow though, you knew it wouldn’t last.
And sure enough she betrayed you.
Leaving you trapped like an animal in a caged zoo.

Then down came the pain.
What career was this?
You were left in tatters as you got dismissed.
An old spy, most wanted with no alibi.
Part of you wanted to lay down and die, but you had spirit.
Stating your case it was a miracle when others chose to hear it.
Then, like a phoenix, you blazed back.
Solving old cases watching bad men fall and take the rap.
Even so, there’s a long way to go.
You’re still raw and torn up.
But that’s the price you pay to play, Mr Informer.

Homeland: The Drone Queen

A world without Brody. There’s no denying Damien Lewis is a very fine actor. I’m a big fan and his departure at the end of the last season of Homeland did leave a void, but it was almost like his character, Nicholas Brody, had become bigger than the show. With him gone everyone can settle down a bit and get on with things.

Particularly Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), now station chief in Afghanistan. The episode (and latest season) starts with her hesitantly authorising a missile strike. Her team watch a big screen stoney-faced as buildings blow up. They then bring out a cake for her birthday with her nickname, ‘The Drone Queen’, written in icing.

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This disturbingly blasé approach to ‘the war on terror’ won’t be lost on the audience. In fact, it won’t be lost on the characters. Carrie may have hardened up to the realities of her job or just be putting on a good show of it, but someone coping less well is the former hitman with a heart of gold, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), now stationed in Pakistan.

His conscious began to knaw away at him last season and his moral crisis continues here. His pain is clear to see and appears to be in direct contrast to the rigid exterior Carrie has built up for herself.

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One of the other main stalwarts of the show, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is now a private contractor advising the US government on the current conflict. He’s also questioning his stance and decisions made in the past, perhaps in a more reflective way, but it’ll be interesting to see how his influence on Carrie plays out now that he’s not directly calling the shots on behalf of the government.

For a season opener it’s not all moody introspection though. There’s a tense and dramatic sequence involving the (possibly corrupt) station chief in Pakistan, which sets up the story for (probably) the next few episodes in an intriguing way.

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Carrie, as ever, remains a conflicted and eminently watchable character, and with Brody out the picture she’s back to centre stage. No doubt a few new characters will emerge to put her off her stride and make her question her choices.

Either way, it feels like this show has somewhat turned a corner and it will be interesting to see where the writers take the story. The opening episode focused on the American’s use of drones, as did the whole of the latest season of 24, but this show is almost the opposite in terms of tone and style. So how they build on this premise will be key. If the first episode is anything to go by, it looks like a running theme to develop could be the degree to which each character questions his or her decisions.

The conflict of the moral compass you might say.

There’s no doubt after the first two seasons Homeland holds itself to a high standard. The last season suffered a bit of a wobble but I’m keeping an open mind on this one.

Nicholas Brody: Wanted – Dead or Alive!

homeland-season3So…Homeland returns for a third outing. Carrie is back, looking a little less harrowed. Well, only a little. Off her meds, or on to new ones or something like that. Let’s just say, whilst not fully unhinged, the door is hanging on by a hinge at present, but could go either way. Easily one of the best written (and played) female characters on TV in recent times.

Saul is back, reluctantly taking the helm at the CIA. An organisation now in tatters, with other government bodies looking for excuses to pull the plug. As a result, he looks a lot more harrowed, stuck making the tough decisions, with half an eye on so-called ‘friendly colleagues’, wondering whether he’s getting stabbed in the back.

Brody is MIA (again), leaving his family to pick up the pieces (again). Daughter Dana – whilst seeming well-adjusted on the surface – appears to have been through the biggest ordeal, as the episode picks up her story again during rehab, saul homelandhaving tried to take her life following the events at the end of season 2.

Shady operative-turned-assassin, Peter Quinn, is in full focus in this opening episode, ordered to infiltrate a compound Scarface style and take out a very bad man in under 10 minutes. It goes (mostly) to plan but, as you’d expect, takes us to some dark places. I was half hoping a coked-up Al Pacino to burst out and utter that immortal line.

So, all in all, a perky start. However…

Third time round the writers have got their work cut out, ensuring the various character story arcs don’t all snowball in different directions. The first episode hasn’t even touched on the whereabouts of Brody or Abu Nazir.

One thing for them to remember (should they need reminding) is to avoid letting this show veer too close to the action fuelled roller coaster that was 24. Times have moved on since then and the first (if not so much the second) series proved that Homeland was (and hopefully still is) an intelligent, slow burner, b6f713e9b7c677e3_homeland_303_4882.R.previewwhere you have to put the work in to thread the story together.

Key to this is the tour de force performance of Damian Lewis. The sooner he’s back in the picture the better. Although, with half of America now gunning for the ex-Congressman, his ability to lie his way out of trouble could be sorely put to the test.

Whatever way this season unfolds, I imagine it will be the hardest one yet in terms of receiving widespread acclaim. Season 2 rode high on the success of season 1 meaning that, if season 2 was largely accepted as the difficult second album achieved, that leaves this as the impossible third album in the making.

I say in the making, I’m hoping they’ve finished writing it and that it promises to be the best season yet. The bar, however, remains almost impossibly high.

Chastain, Bigelow and the hunt for Bin Laden

We all know the end-game right? The good old gung-ho Americans dug deep and got Bin Laden, after a decade-long hunt. A big win for the Obama regime. Question is, how did they get there? How does Bigelow take us on that journey?

It’s fair to say the The Hurt Locker in 2008 represented a significant career moment for Kathryn Bigelow, pushing her from developing auteur talent into a fully-fledged award-winning Director. jessica chastain stars and stripesIndeed, she was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Only the fourth woman in history to even get nominated.

Also – with The Hurt Locker – she introduced us to the up-and-coming talent of Jeremy Renner. In Zero Dark Thirty she repeats the trick with Jessica Chastain. Whilst Chastain is a little more established than Renner was at the time, she still only really broke into the A-list in 2011, with a string of well-received films including The Help and The Tree of Life.

In the end, bro, everybody breaks

In terms of plot, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on young CIA officer Maya (Chastain), who we learn has worked on nothing else since being recruited. Finding Bin Laden is her sole task. Jessica-Chastain-2Through a mixture of controversial interrogation techniques and good old-fashioned investigative work, the trail she doggedly persues over a ten-year period leads to a fortified home in Pakistan, where she’s convinced her target is hiding. The rest we know.

It’s been discussed at length in the press how the film deliberately sits on the fence, neither endorsing nor condemning torture. Perhaps suggesting the Americans found it a necessary evil in the war on terror. Something reflected in the evolution of Chastain’s character, who at first is revolted by torture, but quickly hardens to it.

Credit should not only go to Bigelow’s subtle direction, but also screenwriter Mark Boal, who helped build the tension scene by scene, line by line. In some ways the film plays out like a sort of police procedural drama, a detective story. Slowly, gradually, it hooks you in. Boal’s tight and compelling script; Bigelow’s skill behind the camera; and Chastain’s subtly restrained, yet immensely captivating performance creates an intoxicating mix.

joel edgerton zero dark thirtyBigelow artfully ramps up the pressure in the third act, with the assault on the Bin Laden compound being a tense, sobering affair. There are shades of Paul Greengrass in Bigelow’s direction and, for me, this film represents a small but significant step up – in terms of breadth and scope – from The Hurt Locker. It’s entirely deserving of all the accolades received and has very much paved the way for Chastain to ascend to the top of the A-list. Can’t wait to see what she does next. Bigelow too, for that matter.

Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

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I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

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!