Sunday, 22 February 2015

TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episode 9

Monday nights have become a bit surreal of late. As Broadchurch has become increasingly bonkers, they’ve taken on a kind of mad escapist quality, not always vastly satisfying, but unmissable nonetheless.

This penultimate episode however, did feel a little like an hour we could have survived without. There were a few revelations; it turns out Claire (Eve Myles) had an abortion years ago whilst Lee (James D’Arcy) was either in prison or on the run, I forget/no longer care which. We also learned that, with Alec Hardy (David Tennant) lying next to her when she awoke from the procedure in flashback, that perhaps they’ve always been closer than he would have people believe? Having had his heart surgery, it seems that Alec is going to survive until the end of the series after all, which is just as well given that he and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) have finally started to make some headway with the Sandbrook case, connecting Claire and Ricky Gillespie (Shaun Dooley) through the mysterious dialled number on Claire’s phone. Perhaps Lee is innocent after all? He’s creepy as hell, which by the usual Broadchurch standards means he hasn’t done a thing wrong. 

So far so relatively logical, although none of this felt like it contributed to the wider plot in any significant way. It felt, and I hate to say it, a little filler. And then we had the madder scenes of the episode to contend with, the majority of which, now I think about it, seemed to happen around the beach and cliff areas. Ah, that sea air. We had Claire inexplicably choosing to hide out at the beach huts after Alec threw her out. ‘No one knows I’m here, do they?’ what, here in your secret hide-out on the beach in broad daylight? It’s hardly Fort Knox is it, love? And then the mad fight between her and Lee with them both seemingly attempting to drown each other in the surf, then giving up and realising that perhaps they’re not good for each other after all. Really, you think? And then to cap it all off, there was that kiss between barrister Jocelyn (Charlotte Rampling) and journalist Maggie (Carolyn Pickles). 

In the right context, it could have been very sweet, albeit random. Unfortunately, this wasn’t that context, and it felt thrown in and a little insensitive. That said, there has been a bit of a theme in recent episodes of people changing their behaviour due to ill health, becoming more rash and emotional (Hardy, Susan) so given Jocelyn’s failing eyesight, meaning it (just about) fits the pattern, I’ll let this one slide for now.

On the plus side, at least Ellie seems to have her family and her life back together a bit now, thankfully. I never quite understood why her eldest son turned against her as he did, so I was pleased to see that rectified through another fabulous Ellie Miller common sense shouting match last week. She was beginning to turn into a bit of a downtrodden plot device, so it was good to see her firing on all cylinders again here, even if she has made a bit of a mess of her evidence in court on a number of occasions. It was also good to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s arrogant, self-serving Abby get a bit of a comeuppance, again in a slightly bizarre exchange, as lawyer Ben (William Andrews) took great delight in telling her what a horrible person she is. It was a laugh out loud moment amongst a sea (literally) of disbelief.

Despite all the madness, there was a little bit of tension to be found, as the case against Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle) finally came to an end. For a while it almost, almost appeared that we were going to hear the verdict in this episode. But of course we weren’t. 

If nothing else, it would have been nice to give Matthew Gravelle something to do. He was outstanding in the final episodes of series one, yet this series all he’s really been able to do, albeit for obvious reasons, is sit behind bulletproof glass and widen his eyes occasionally. 

Which seems a shame to me.

Will he be found guilty? All will be revealed tomorrow.



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Sunday, 15 February 2015

TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episode Six

This week on the ever-eventful rollercoaster that is the second series of Broadchurch, Ellie and Alec get closer to solving the Sandbrook case and it's looking increasingly like Claire has something to hide (d'uh). Lee is still lurking around, doing his lurking thing and then sort-of-but-not-really violently threatening Claire, but she finds it sexy, so that's all right. Tom takes his turn in the witness box, seemingly pointing the finger at Mark, but then again, maybe not (honestly, this case has had more suspects in it than the average Miss Marple). 

As the courses of the intertwining narratives progressed, it's been a constant shift between which one was the more compelling. This week, as the trial faced its biggest challenge of nearly being dismissed, that became the more interesting of the two, particularly given the emotional revelations at the heart of Mark and Tom's testimonies. The court scenes have veered wildly from one extreme to another and I'm still surprised that so many people are getting away with openly lying under oath, but hey, let's not let due process get in the way of a good drama. It's still very silly, but we are edging closer to finding the verdict.

In fact, there's been a recurring theme of people just taking complete liberties with their situation and using it to advance either case. This week found the defence's assistant barrister sleeping with the journalist who was covering the case. Um. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm fairly sure there's a little thing called ethics which would prevent that sort of thing from happening, let alone using it to influence the course of the trial. I'm all for silliness in Broadchurch (I've stuck with it for this long), but it's the odd moment like this that complete remove you from the ongoing storyline. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but when implausibility is practically hammering at the fourth wall, it's a little tough to ignore.

If we're talking outright daftness though, it's most definitely the Sandbrook case's turn to wear the silly hat for the week. That Claire was somehow involved in the Sandbrook deaths has been really apparent for a while now so the twists and turns didn't come with a shock so much as a shrug. Eve Myles' temper tantrum was creatively mad, letting us know that Claire isn't as calm and collected as she might make out and as Ellie so brilliantly pointed out, she isn't exactly one for self-control. I'm still not entirely sure what part Lee has to play in it all, other than unwitting scapegoat, but the scene of them looking at a house with an easily accessible family next door was suitably sinister.

Olivia Colman continues to be not only the best thing in the series, but quite possibly also since sliced bread. Whether it's putting down the idiots she has to deal with (usually Hardy) with a withering one liner or finally confronting her son, Colman's character feels the most dimensional out of the entire Broadchurch rogues' gallery. Her scene opposite Tom in which she took charge and, for want of a better term, gave him a bollocking was one of the best things the second series has done so far. It's Ellie's emotional journey that's keeping me going more than anything else in this show.

- Becky

You can read Jen's review of the previous episode here.

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Friday, 6 February 2015

TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episode 5

Despite throwing even more confusing twists and turns at us, and not really getting any closer to divulging any answers, the cinematography and running themes in this episode of Broadchurch made it one of the best for a while. 

With lots of shifting focus in shots, more hilltop seascapes and not to mention the eerie fairy lights of the fairground outside Hardy (David Tennant)’s gaff, it actually felt a more like a standalone short film than anything else. Although some elements of the show doubtless continue to be frustrating at best, and at worst totally unrealistic, at least we’re being given a beautiful, almost art-house view of the seaside to keep us going. Even if it is shot through the lens of what is now three grisly child murders. 

But I quibble.

As Alec tried not to let Ellie (Olivia Colman) get too caught up in the Sandbrook case (the words bolted, horse and stable door spring to mind) she was allowed an uplifting, albeit momentarily, storyline as she took it upon herself to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, drama between the legal teams increased, Beth (Jodie Whittaker) tried and failed to come to terms with her loss once again, Claire (Eve Myles) admitted to sleeping with Lee (James D’Arcy) whilst left alone at the cottage, and Ricky Gillespie (Shaun Dooley) turned up – although we’re still not too sure of his real motivation. Does he know something about the deaths of his daughter and niece? Meanwhile, it looked even less likely that DI Hardy will survive the series, and James D’Arcy somehow managed to pop up in just about every shot. Could the shock twist of all be that he’s actually some sort of ninja? Time will tell.

Again, this was another episode with a lot of people shouting at a lot of other people, most of whom didn’t really deserve it. We had Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) shouting at Charlotte Rampling’s Jocelyn over the latter not taking up her son’s defence as he was put on trial for murder, we had Tom, played by star-in-the-making Adam Wilson (also seen recently in Mr Selfridge and Silent Witness) telling Ellie off for not standing by his murderous Dad, and even Paul (Arthur Darvill) the sinister vicar had a tough time of it.

 I know I’ve questioned Paul’s holiness since day one, but the shock from Becca (Simone McAullay) and minor blackmail on the part of Joe’s legal team that a vicar should be visiting a sinner in jail seems a little far-fetched. Err, it’s his job? Give him a break! Whether this is just a ruse to let him off the hook of suspicion himself for a while, I don’t know, but it certainly worked on me.

This all tied in well with what seems to be an ongoing theme not just of justice as a system, but of what it is fair to expect of individuals. Is it fair to assume Ellie knew what Joe was up to just because she was married to him? Is it fair to punish her for what he did? Conversely, is it fair to blame Claire for protecting her husband? Can we really expect Beth to help precisely the sort of offender who killed her son? The list goes on.

Interestingly, Sandbrook has actually now become intriguing enough as a storyline in itself that it doesn’t feel so much like an irritating distraction from the main event. We’re now genuinely caught up in the mystery, to the extent that I for one now have to frequently remind myself that Eve Myles hasn’t actually been in the show since the beginning. Again, more cleverness on the part of Chris Chibnall in that most viewers are now working on two separate theories for two separate mysteries, all from the comfort of their sofas, and will most likely tune in to find the answer to one or the other. 

On the downside, Susan Wright’s (Pauline Quirke) re-appearance felt like a bit of a farce. Her attempted revelations became yet another example of the show’s slightly annoying habit of dealing you a cliff-hanger (literally, given the town’s location) at the end of almost every episode, only for it to either never be mentioned again or dismissed within the first five minutes of the following episode, like a dissatisfying rollercoaster. Ellie and Alec’s alleged affair, anyone?

Nonetheless, Broadchurch continues to be well acted, well shot and well written. But as viewers become increasingly frustrated, will it continue to be well watched as we enter the final three episodes? Probably, after all, most of us still want to know whodunit, whydunit and can, in the case of Joe, can they prove he-dunit?

Let’s hope so.



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Thursday, 29 January 2015

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Prom

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Faith's on the dark side with the Mayor, who was a bit too honest about how a mismatched couple like Buffy and Angel could fare as they travel along. Buffy and the gang are still trying to find out stuff about the Mayor's Ascension as Graduation Day looms on the horizon.

Hands up if you cry at this episode.

All of you? If not, someone is either lying or completely stone-hearted. Because this is the episode where Buffy finally gets to be recognised for what she does and is acknowledged as a nice, nearly normal girl who happens to save people's asses a lot. This is also what she does in this episode as a guy called Tucker Wells who no one really knows decides to get revenge on everyone because a girl wouldn't be his date to the prom. A guy threatening violence because he found he wasn't automatically entitled to a woman's time? Never... Ahem. Anyway, basically Buffy decides that this isn't on and goes after the hell hounds that Tucker has conjured up and brainwashed into attacking formal wear.

Though the prom is something that's only just started to take in the UK, it's a concept that is hugely familiar to us through the teen movies we all know and love. The prom is a rite of passage event, the beginning of the end of high school and also the opportunity for new beginnings afterwards. This episode sort of subverts it in the traditional way by packing the episode full of endings; Angel and Buffy break up, he commits to leaving and Cordy has lost everything. 

That being said, it's not without humour. In fact, it contains some cracking lines, not to mention it features the best 'asking for a prom date' line ever from Anya: "Men are evil. Will you go with me?" Wesley's constant dithering about Cordelia is always amusing whilst Anya regales Xander with all of her tales of vengeance demoning. Nicholas Brendon's expression throughout that whole scene is pitch perfect. Still, I'm upset this exchange had to be cut out of the final episode for length:

Willow: Promise me you'll never be linear?
Oz: On my trout.

Despite everyone else's joys and woes, the episode is all about Buffy. Going right back to Prophecy Girl when she was determined to go to the dance despite an ancient manuscript telling her she was due to die and through the Homecoming Slayerfest, Buffy is determined to at least fit in a bit and have a normal high school experience. The prom represents another opportunity, possibly the last, for her to do this and she doesn't take too kindly to someone threatening it. Saving the prom may just be another day in the office for her, but the episode's sweetest moment comes as the Class of '99 recognise Buffy as their Class Protector.

Jonathan's speech is another perfect example of how Buffy combines humour with melancholy to produce something exceptionally moving. It's one of my favourite moments of the entire series, precisely because it combines those two things so well. There's Jonathan giving the speech after Buffy stopping him from committing suicide in the earlier episode, Earshot, which carries even more emotional heft given Jonathan's fate later in the series. Then there's the references to how the Class of '99 is graduating with the lowest mortality rate in Sunnydale High history to the weird things everyone has faced at school ("Zombies!" "Hyena people!" "Snyder!"). 

Coupled with the moment in which Angel appears to dance with Buffy at the prom itself, everything about this episode is pretty much perfect. The sombreness builds well into the general tension surrounding the approach to the Mayor's Ascension, whilst the levity ensures it doesn't get too maudlin. Next week, we hit Graduation Day which not only contains my favourite line of Oz's, it also might be the best two-part finale Buffy produced. 

Quote of the Week:

Giles [to Wesley]: For God's sake man, she's eighteen. And you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone. Just have at it would you? And stop fluttering about.

Let's Get Trivial: Vera Wang designed Buffy's gorgeous and floofy wedding dress for this episode. Wang would also go on to design Sarah Michelle Gellar's wedding dress when she married Freddie Prinze Jr.

Demonology 101: Tucker's brother, Andrew, famously goes on to become one of The Trio who kinda suck at everything. He does do some neat film-making later on though.

- Becky

You can read Becky's look back at Choices here.

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TV REVIEW: Broadchurch - Episodes Three & Four

When the first series of Broadchurch had reached the halfway point, the nation was on tenterhooks wanting to know who had killed Danny Latimer. Now, everyone seems to be wondering how long it's going to be before everyone in that courtroom gets disbarred and/or starts dancing a fandango on the grave of this particular fictional legal system. As much as I still love the show and all the weird and wonderful goings-on, it's gone a bit mad. It's not quite full cobblers just yet, but compared to the glorious restraint shown in the first series, it feels like Broadchurch has taken a running jump of the picturesque Cliff of Sanity, falling headlong into the Sea of Melodrama below.

The two strands of the Broadchurch and Sandbrook cases aren't so much weaving together as crashing into each other at opportune intervals. Lee Ashworth lurks in every scene he's let near like a handsome, dangerous lurking thing (James D'Arcy gives good lurk), the residents of Broadchurch itself seem to have forgotten that a young boy died and are revelling with a grotesque glee at the proceedings whilst Miller and Hardy try to connect the dots. The trouble is, all of the dots are screaming 'Lee Ashworth is innocent! Look check out this creepy guy over here!" Only they're not.

Before I descend into a complete frenzy of bewilderment and slightly open-mouthed awe, I do have to point out a lot of the positives going on in Broadchurch right now. Well, a few of the positives. Ok, fine, one major positive; all of the roles for older women currently occupying this production. Obviously, Olivia Colman is wonderful and amazing and we still love her. Then's there's Charlotte Rampling who is utter class, Meera Syal bringing fierceness and an excellent wig to the proceedings and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the conscience-stricken defence barrister. They are all absolutely fantastic and are really excelling within the slightly bonkers proceedings.

Not only that, but we also get the return of lurking Pauline Quirke in the fourth episode (more lurking) who points the finger at Creepy Nige for the disposal of Danny's body. Yes, Creepy Nige is back to earning his nickname, pulling all sorts of facial expressions at his estranged mother when she first tries to make peace with him before trying to frame him in another ridiculous shock moment. It's at these more emotional, sombre moments of high melodrama that Broadchurch is striving for a balance that it's not always able to keep. 

There are those jaw-dropping moments that are fuelled by pure pettiness on behalf of the witness (seriously, how have none of them been done for perjury?) and then there are others where Chris Chibnall is trying to hark back to the restraint of the first series. It doesn't always quite land. The scene of David Tennant gallantly carrying the body of the Sandbrook murder victim back to shore through the pouring rain was far too overwrought to be taken seriously. Tennant is a good enough actor to just let the storytelling land the emotional moments. He doesn't need sodden flashbacks to make him look good.

And yet, we're still hooked. It's still absolutely compelling television, it's just compelling television of an entirely different kind to the first series. This one seems to be hinging more on how many times can we shock the audience with another cliffhanger before they call foul as opposed to crafting the meticulous crime drama we all fell in love with. And I'm sort of OK with that. Granted, if we do get that courtroom-based fandango, I may eat my words, but hell, I'm all for Meera Syal dancing on her bench with wig in hand.

- Becky

You can read Jen's review of Episode Two here.

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Sunday, 25 January 2015

THEATRE REVIEW: Happy Birthday Without You - Tricycle Theatre

Photo by Luke Pajak

Written and performed by Sonia Jalaly, one-woman comedy Happy Birthday Without You introduces us to the world of Violet Fox, a performance artiste with a passionate and somewhat misguided belief that she has some very important things to say.
In her own words: ‘I put my soul on stage every night for strangers. In my eyes that makes me a hero.’

Through a mash-up of spoken word, cabaret, satire and visual comedy, Violet takes the audience on a journey through the various disastrous birthdays of her life, weaving in anecdotes about her complex and destructive relationship with her mother. 

As Violet, Sonia Jalaly is highly expressive, watchable, and is a natural comic performer. Expertly sending up Violet’s astronomical opinion of herself, Jalaly appears just the opposite, gleefully unafraid to take risks and interact with the audience – often looking quite silly in the process. We’ve all encountered exactly the sort of ‘troubled artist’ Violet thinks she is, especially in the spoken word world, so it is undeniably refreshing to see this satirised, particularly in such a unique and interesting way and by a talented performer in her own right.

Visual comedy is something that can often be quite difficult for an audience to gel with, and there seemed to be a real mixture of reactions on the night I saw the show. Particular highlights, however, included a solitary game of musical chairs involving post-it notes and lipstick, different renditions of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ in the style of various Broadway dames (Jalaly has one hell of a voice), and a mimed Edith Piaf impression. A healthy smattering of self-aware, satirical theatre jokes works well too - ‘Ooh look the lights have come on and everything – it’s just so immersive’. There’s also a really brilliant joke about some pornographic bunting towards the end which frankly is worth the ticket price alone.
Photo by Luke Pajak

The actual plot of the piece, whilst fragmented and non-chronological, is held together remarkably well. You suspect that in the hands of a lesser performer, perhaps one closer to Violet than Sonia, it would not be anywhere near as well constructed. Interestingly though, the darker elements of the hour and ten minute production are some of the most effective, and despite the satire you so find yourself wanting to see them taken further, especially when Violet then breaks the tension with a characteristic ‘so…yeah’. It’s really quite clever to get an unexpected laugh from somewhere like that and Ruby Thompson’s direction really shines in such moments. I couldn’t help but wish the darker moments were taken further, but then pulling the rug out from under the audience when the satire crashes sharply back in.

It’s main and really only weakness as a piece, and certainly one often felt by the genre as a whole, is that it’s easy to feel on the edge of the humour rather than fully immersed in it. It can often feel as if there’s a huge-in joke that you misheard the punchline of or just didn’t quite get. When you do get it, you find yourself laughing out loud, but the parts which don’t quite land are a little alienating. 

Essentially, when this show works, it really works. 

For me, there were just a few too many gaps between the big laughs. But if cabaret, visual comedy, spoken word, or anything between is your bag, this is definitely a performance worth seeing if you can catch it.




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When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, she set a template for stories about man playing at being God that has lasted for nearly two centuries. Her doctor was concerned with the reanimation of man, an experiment which resulted in the earliest science fiction novel, asking big questions about man's place in the world, the nature of humanity and the way in which society's nurture can alter it. The inspiration for Ex Machina is clear as first-time director, long-time screenwriter Alex Garland remoulds Shelley's tale for the 21st century, melding her Romantic sensibilities and philosophical searching with a technological sheen that re-examines the age-old question of what makes us human.

The film finds a computer programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning the opportunity to spend a week in the company of his reclusive billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). As is so often the case, all is not what it seems and Caleb discovers he is to be the human component in a Turing test, the ultimate test to see if artificial intelligence can pass for being human and all that entails. The artificial intelligence in question is a humanoid construction called Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb progresses through the test, he finds himself questioning everything he has been told so far and forming a curious relationship with the inquisitive Ava.

Meticulous in its construction, not a single word of Garland's screenplay is wasted, building the tension between the three leads beautifully as the story unfolds. It deftly combines exposition with the action itself and considering the subject matter, it neither belittles nor leaves its audience behind. Garland has an impressive track record with genre screenwriting anyway, but he more than proves himself as a director too, intricately building the claustrophobic world of Nathan's retreat. That world-building ensures that the film not only excels narratively, but thematically too.

The location and design of Nathan's house is a perfect microcosm of the way in which Ex Machina sets binary opposites together seemingly in harmony. Conversations about evolution and the natural world take place within a location that itself sees the meeting of the chaos of nature and the order of the modern world. Nathan's house is all clean lines and carefully arranged rooms with the natural world jutting in through a stylishly designed rock formation as part of a wall or a tree growing through into a small courtyard. Floor to ceiling windows allow its occupants to see out to the mountains, the forest and all of the impressive scenery beyond. The message of this house is clear; this is a place where nature is controlled and kept at bay, a fitting house for a man attempting to play God.

Ava, the figure at the heart of the film, is another example of this meeting of opposites. Impressively designed and realised via Vikander's performance, Ava is a combination of human features and metal bodywork, glimpsed through transparent panels on her arms, torso and legs. It is an uncanny version of humanity and Vikander captures both facets of the character masterfully, given her an almost mechanical physicality with a none-more human personality. The casting of Vikander also builds in a layer of objectification regarding both Caleb and Nathan's interaction with her; it's something Garland casts a critical eye over. It builds into a voyeurism at the heart of the film, one which not only casts Ava within the male gaze of Nathan and Caleb, but also the entirety of humanity. Nathan's search engine, Bluebook, can code and quantify human needs, constructed solely from the profile their use of the internet constructs.

Both starring in a certain blockbuster sequel later this year, 2015 looks set to be a big year for Isaac and Gleeson. In this smaller, confined world, Gleeson brings a wide-eyed naivety and a warm performance to the film. As the human component in the Turing test, his innate goodness filters through and he makes for a sympathetic narrative focus. It also helps that he has an exceptional chemistry with both Vikander and Isaac. Isaac may have broken through with the morose Llewyn Davis, but he proves his versatility here, giving a performance that is operating on several levels all at once. Mercurial, sinister and broodingly physical, he brings a masculine posturing to the film that produces an excellent counterpoint to Vikander's soft femininity. 

Ex Machina is fascinating, multi-layered piece of work and Alex Garland's directorial debut is extremely impressive, combining thematic explorations with a chilling, twisting narrative. It's an intelligent new spin on a Frankenstein-like tale and will stand as an example of the kind of clever science fiction that enthrals and bewilders in equal measure.

- Becky

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